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Larry Fronk

Bad Soldiers

by
Larry Fronk

 

Tarek lay sleeping next to his mama on the concrete sidewalk, with his head resting on a frayed backpack, in front of an ancient stone warehouse in the Turkish port city of Izmir. He and his mama arrived late that night with his uncle, aunt and two cousins. Tarek mumbles in his sleep kicking his feet. He rolls over and his foot lands on his cousin’s lower back.

“Tarek. Tarek. It’s OK. It’s a bad dream. You’re safe now,” his mama says stroking his short black hair.

“Ummi,” Tarek says taking hold of his mama’s hand with his trembling right hand, “It was the bombs again. I ran, but could not get away.”

Tarek is eight years old with a ruddy, dirty face. He is naturally thin, though not under nourished. He’s wearing a white shirt, black shorts and sandals. The bottom of his legs and his feet are covered with sand from the dusty ride across the Taurus Mountains the day before. His back and bottom are still sore from the bumpy truck ride that began three days ago in Gaziantep. His scarred, left arm hangs limp by his side.

It seems like forever since Tarek loaded up his backpack and left his home in Aleppo, Syria. The backpack holds everything Tarek owns and cherishes. There are two striped shirts, two pair of shorts and two pair of underwear. A picture of his papa in his soldier uniform. A pad of paper, two pencils and two apples. A prayer rug that belonged to his papa.

The sun rises over the tall glistening buildings of Izmir reflecting orange and yellow light off the windows offering the first glimpse of a new day. Tarek stands up and takes a deep breath and is overcome with the oily smell of fish and the sweet smell of fruit coming from crates and baskets lining the docks. He feels salt hitting his face, just like sand blowing off the desert. Tarek sees a crowd of people wrapped in red, yellow and blue blankets on the sidewalk huddled together in small groups. Some are stretching as they wake to the new day. Mamas are picking up their children.

He gets his first look at the docks. The water is lined with boats, both small and large, some with sails, some clean and shiny and others dirty with rust, slime and peeling paint. Men dressed in grey coats and hats scurry up and down the docks carrying boxes, nest and poles. In the distance he sees two very large white boats; bigger than any boat he had ever seen.

“Ummi. What are those big boats?” Tarek asks pointing out to sea.

His mama follows Tarek’s finger and spots the large boats. “They are called cruise ships. They bring visitors to Turkey from other countries like Greece and Italy.”

“Are we going on one of those boats to Greece?”

“No Tarek. Our boat will be much smaller.” his mama answers. Seeing the sadness on Tarek’s face she adds, “Our boat trip will be more of an adventure than going on a bigger boat.”

Tarek hears his uncle approach through the crowd and tell his mama, “Stay here with the others. I will check on the boat.”

“Are you sure we still want to do this. I heard the stories about France and Germany. Anas, I am scared. Maybe we should stay in Turkey.”

“There is nothing more for us here than in Syria. It will be safer in Greece.”

His mama hands Uncle Anas a package and his uncle disappears back into the waking crowd. Tarek and his mama move closer to the building and huddle with the other Syrians waiting for boats. Tarek chooses a spot where he can still see the docks and the sea. He watches the boats sail out to sea and disappear into the horizon. He sees a soldier in a green uniform carrying a gun walking down the street.   He falls back into the crowd and grabs his mama’s abayah.

“It’s OK, Tarek. The soldier is not a bad soldier. He is a good soldier. He is here to help and protect us. This is a safe place.” mama said.

The soldier walks by without stopping or even looking their way.

About four hours later, Tarek’s uncle returns and says, “The boat leaves in two days and will pick us up on a beach about ten kilometers north of the city. We need to find a comfortable place to rest and get food.”

For Tarek two days is forever. He pulls his paper pad and pencil from his backpack and flips pages until he reaches a blank page. He writes about his trip on the truck from Gaziantep, the stories the adults told about Syria, before the war. He writes about the exciting city they are in, the tall buildings, the colorful awnings and doors. He writes about the boats and fish. Once or twice, maybe more, Tarek asks his mama how to spell a word. His mama tells him how proud she is that he practices his writing even when there is no school. Tarek smiles and writes about the good soldiers. Finished, he places the paper pad and pencils in the plastic bag his uncle gave him and put it into his backpack.

The day of the boat trip arrives and Tarek can’t wait to see their boat and start the adventure mama promised. Before leaving his mama changed from her abayah into black jeans, a grey print shirt and a black scarf. Tarek’s uncle leads the group on the ten kilometer hike to reach the boat that will take the group of forty-five Syrians to Greece. They walk two by two. Tarek holds his mama’s hand as they walk along the sidewalks that turn to dirt paths as they leave the city and approach the countryside. Other than scattered green bushes and a few small trees, there is only rock. The path turns toward the sea and comes to an end at a bluff. Below, white caps can be seen over the rough water and waves crash against the grey and black rocks that line the beach. Above, grey clouds can be seen in the distance.

Tarek’s uncle directs people to a path made of small and large rocks that lead down to the sea. Tarek cannot walk on the path. He crawls, climbs and is sometimes lifted over and around the rocks. It is hard work and it takes Tarek an hour to reach the beach. He climbs over the last rock that stands between him and the beach. Tarek stares out at the sea that seems to go on forever. Waves splash against the rocks and spray salt water on his face which he quickly spits out on the ground.

“Ummi, can I put my feet in the water?” Tarek asks.

“OK. Go with your cousins and stay close,”

Tarek takes off his sandals and walks into the water letting the waves flow through him. He runs and splashes his cousins. He turns to let the waves hit his back and sees his mama watching him.   She has a big smile on her face. His uncle stands on a large rock looking out into the sea.

“The boat is coming,” his uncle shouts.

Tarek runs to his mama as the rest of the group gathers together on the beach. The roar of the engine of the black pontoon boat could be heard above the crashing waves. The boat rises and falls with each wave. Each wave brings it closer to the shore. As the boat gets closer, Tarek can see the captain. He is wearing a yellow coat and an orange life jacket. His long dark hair is blowing in the wind. The boat rides a wave onto the sandy beach and slides to a stop. The captain steps off the boat.

“We need to move quickly. The water is a little rough today. Life jackets are in the boat. Everyone needs to put one on,” the captain said.

“The boat is very small.” Tarek said.

“Yes it is,” his mama said, “get in and we’ll put our life jackets on.”

Tarek is the last to get on the boat. With everyone on board Tarek’s uncle asks for quiet.

“Fee Amaan Allah,” his uncle prays.

“In the protection of Allah,” everyone repeats.

Tarek’s uncle and two other men push the boat off the beach. The engine sputters once then starts to roar. The captain turns the boat toward the open sea. Everyone sits very close. Tarek could not even move his right arm. Tarek sits between his mama and his cousin on the side of the boat. His mama wraps her arms around Tarek to protect him from the constant splashing. Tarek’s wet shirt is sticking to his skin. The life jacket rubs on his neck. His backpack is soaked and seems to gain weight with every wave. He shivers from the cold.

As the boat moves further from shore the waves rise higher. Tarek bounces as each wave passes under the boat and the straps on his backpack dig into his shoulders. Another wave and he bounces even higher and his mama’s arms falls away. Another wave splashes over the boat and pushes Tarek over the edge of the boat with his backpack over the open sea. His mama reaches to grab Tarek, but it is too late, he falls into the water.

Tarek hears his mama’s scream over the roar of the engine and the waves. The engine stops.   Tarek’s head is bobbing over the surface of the water and he is waving his right arm in the air. The sea water is burning his eyes and mouth. He yells. He kicks his legs frantically to stay above water and move back to the boat. He sees two men jump off the boat into the sea and swim toward him. He sees the captain throw a life preserver attached to a rope at the two men. One of the men grabs it and swims toward Tarek. Tarek is lying face up in the water when the first man reaches him. His eyes are closed. The second man swims up with the life preserver. Each holds Tarek with one arm with the other on the life preserver. The working together the men in the boat pull the rope.

Tarek is lifted up onto the boat and placed in his crying mama’s arms. Tarek coughs once, then again and again, spitting salt water from his mouth onto those around him. He is shaking uncontrollably. A women hands Tarek’s mama a blanket that she wraps around him. Tarek and his mama sit down in the center of the boat. Tarek’s uncle and several other men surround them. Everyone links arms and they sit as low as possible in the boat. The engine starts and the captain continues their voyage to Lesbos.

Four hours after the frightful rescue the rocky beaches of Lesbos are in sight. The captain turns the boat and heads for a beach nestled between two rock cliffs. As they near the beach several men jump off the boat, grab the ropes and pull the boat ashore. Once off the boat the captain tells the group Camp Moria is a short walk along a path between the cliffs. He returns to his boat and leaves the island.

On shore the group says a prayer to Allah for granting them passage to Lesbos and for saving the life of Tarek. Tarek’s uncle, carrying Tarek in his arms, leads the group along the path to Camp Moria. After walking half an hour the group is stopped by two men in green uniforms with guns.

“We come seeking asylum,” Tarek’s uncle said, “We have a boy that needs a doctor. Please, we ask for your help.”

Tarek’s mama, crying says, “I beg you. Help my son.”

The soldiers look at Tarek, his uncle and his mother. Waving their hands up and down the soldier’s motion the group to sit down. One of the soldiers talks into a radio while the other moves his eyes from person to person. Three other soldiers in blue uniforms join them along with a man and a woman dressed in white. The woman has on a white hat with a red cross on it; the man carries a bag. She looks at the ground listening to one of the soldiers. Two soldiers walk among the group looking at each person. The woman steps forward and begins speaking in Arabic.

“Where is the boy that needs a doctor?” she asks.

Tarek’s uncle stands holding Tarek and his backpack tightly in his arms. The woman motions them to come forward. The man carrying the bag comes up to Tarek and says something he cannot understand.

“He is a doctor,” the woman translates.

The doctor examines Tarek. He says something to a soldier and the women that Tarek cannot understand.

“The doctor says the boy has a mild case of hypothermia.   He needs dry clothes, a warm blanket and a warm drink. A soldier will bring them soon,” the woman said.

Tarek sees more soldiers coming toward them. One is carrying a red blanket and cup.   He hands them to Tarek’s uncle. One soldier stops to talk with the woman.

“Ladies and gentleman,” she says, “I realize you have journeyed a long way to get here. I don’t know what you heard about France and Germany, but things are bad in Europe right now. There is much fear among the people. You will not be allowed to stay. A few hours ago the European Union voted unanimously to close the borders until they can evaluate the situation. I am very sorry, but you cannot stay in Greece. There are boats in the bay ready to take you back to Turkey.”

“No,” Tarek’s uncle shouts, “We have come far. We have risked everything. We are families trying to escape the war. We are not terrorists. We come seeking asylum.”

“I am sorry, but there is nothing I can do. The order comes directly from the Greek President. You cannot stay,” the woman repeated.

“Ummi,” Tarek says, “What does she mean?”

“The bad Syrian soldiers attacked Europe and they won’t let us stay. The people in Europe are afraid of us.”

Tarek sees others standing and shaking their fists and pleading, “We can’t go back”, “Please let us stay,” and “Don’t blame us.”

Tarek looks at his mama. She is wiping tears from her eyes with her scarf. His mama walks up to the woman.

“If a Greek man murders a Turkish man, does that make all Greeks murderers?”

The soldiers move closer and remove the guns from their shoulders with the barrels pointing in the air. The voices fall silent.

“It’s not fair. We hate the bad soldiers too!” Tarek yells at the woman, “They killed my papa. They hurt me. We hate them too. I will show you.”

Tarek unzips the backpack his uncle is holding and reaches in. A soldier runs to Tarek and his uncle and pulls the bag away, but not before Tarek takes out the paper pad.

“Read. Read,” Tarek says handing the pad to the soldier, “We hate the bad soldiers.”

The soldier shakes his head, looks at the pad and shows it to Tarek. The pages are wet and the words smeared.

The soldiers push the group down the path to the bay.

“We hate the bad soldiers too,” Tarek cries.

 

 

BIO

Larry FronkLarry Fronk grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in Upstate New York, and now resides on the east side of Cincinnati, Ohio. Larry recently retired after a 36 year career of public service working in local government in the areas of urban planning, community development and local government management. Upon entering Act II of his life Larry decided to pursue his passion for writing and enrolled in a creative writing class at the University of Cincinnati, Clermont College. This is Larry’s first published work.

 

 

 

The Words in Red

by
Billy Sauls

 

I was talking to two of them. True ones. I was there to interview them about a couple of dead people. One of the dead was their own.

The couple was not just Southern. They were not your average run-of-the-mill rednecks either. They were hillbillies. The real deal. Think The Beverly Hillbillies without the good fortunes of a Jed Clampett, or Deliverence minus the forcible sodomy administered by toothless moonshiners.

There was nothing idealistic about their lifestyle. They were not nestled by the mountains around them. That is a romantic kind of thinking. The people living deep in Appalachia are, in actuality, asphyxiated by the hills. The flow of modern technology is cut off from the inhabitants of Dewey Hollow, as is the flow of income and wealth. A proper education cannot find its way into the hollow either.

Even the sun has difficulty delivering its vitamin D to the malnourished citizenry. Potter’s Ridge to the east and Dewey Ridge to the west permit the sun about five hours a day to do its work. That is not nearly enough time, as could be attested to in the ghostly pale skin of the Sanders family.

Walter and Janice sat on the worn brown or beige sofa. Walter was wearing brown corduroy pants and an I ♥ New York t-shirt. I assumed he was not the original owner of the shirt, or pants for that matter. Walter’s thin frame was comically upright, his hands resting on his knees. He had a thick and pouty lower lip. It hung below the much thinner upper one. I could not keep myself from watching it bounce up and down as he spoke. Hard work had aged his face beyond his forty years. The expression on his wife’s face under her dingy red hair was one of a vivaciousness not normally found on grieving mothers. Only the dark rings circling her eyes revealed her pain. She sat, legs crossed, the top leg rocking back and forth, staring into a mug she had cupped in both hands. I imagined the contents of the mug had something to do with her demeanor.

I was there about the suicides. Their daughter’s was the second in the area in a week. I sat in a fold-up metal chair across from them. I took a sip of black coffee as I awaited an answer to a question I had asked. I had learned in journalism school to wait for an answer to every question, no matter how long the awkward silence after asking. Let the interviewee break the silence, and only with a sufficient answer to the question.

Despite my training, the quiet was killing me. I had asked where it happened and how their daughter’s body was found. Though I knew the answers, I needed to get them talking about the tough stuff. We had talked a bit about the other case. Walter told me the mute young man had a note gripped in his cold hand. I had already heard about it from a couple of other people I had interviewed. The words were barely legible. It said, in trembling red ink, I took the wrong one out the first time. It was as if he had to explain why both of his eyes were missing. A big Oh shucks.

I was about to cave in and ask another question, any question, maybe one about the gawky owl clock hanging on the wall behind them, when Walter finally said, “I can take you, I reckon. Upstairs, I mean. Where it happened.” Janice looked at him, mouth open. I too was surprised. She rose from the sofa and marched out of the room. I could hear her slam her mug down on what I guessed was the kitchen counter.

I looked at Walter and leaned forward. “That would be helpful if you don’t mind.”

I followed Walter up the stairs. He had the gait of a much heavier man, shifting slowly from side to side. Walter asked me how a newspaper in a big city heard about the suicides. The big city was Middlesborough, Kentucky. It had a population of approximately 10,000 souls.

I did not want to tell him that his personal tragedy had become a social media sensation, due, in large part, to its being so odd in nature. I merely shrugged my shoulders instead and told him my editor handed me the story the day before and told me to head up that way. I could hear Janice downstairs beginning to shuffle dishes in the kitchen.

He paused just in front of the bedroom door, hand on the knob. He lowered his head. “She was only twenty, you know? Nora. My one and only child.” He looked up at me. “Mister, are you a praying man?”

“I am.” I lied, and smiled doing it. “And call me Don.”

“Mister,” he began, locking his blue eyes into mine. “Ask the good Lord to watch over the soul of my daughter. I know a lot of folks don’t believe in praying for the de… the departed. But I don’t reckon there can be no harm in it. You?”

“No. I pray for the dearly departed every day.” Another lie.

“Have you lost some of your kin?”

“Quite a few, I’m afraid.” Well, I lost a dog once.

“Tell me about it.” He placed a hand on my shoulder. I lowered my head, shuffled my feet on the wood floor, and told him all about it. A moth circled the single bulb overhead in the hallway as I told him about the make-believe auto accident. The dreamed-up coma. The imaginary dead mother. The funeral. The burial in the pouring rain.

He hugged me. I could smell the Brylcreem in his hair.

He turned, took a deep breath, and opened the door. The room smelled of lemon-scented cleaning chemicals. The make-shift twin bed, composed of a worn mattress on a stack of wooden crates, was un-made and bare. The blood stained blue mattress was sunken in the center from its former owner’s body weight. “That there was her bed. Where Janice found her.”

There were no posters or pictures on the wall. There was a single wooden cross on the wall above the bed. It was the only decoration in the room. There was a particle board dresser and an end table. A large fish bowl sat on the dresser. A single blue fish was barely visible in the dirty water.

I asked Walter about the absence of pictures and décor. He explained to me how the family church frowned upon that sort of thing. In the Sanders home, whatever was preached from the pulpit of the Dewey Church of the Lord and Savior was law. According to the Pentecostal church’s pastor, pictures and “what-nots” were forbidden images. Idols. I wondered about the clock downstairs, and had the ridiculous image in my head of the family falling on their knees and worshipping the yellow and green owl as it declared the top of every hour with its mighty and deistic hoo-hoo. I passed on asking about it.

“Mr. Sanders, was your daughter already… gone when Mrs. Sanders found her?”

“Uh-huh. She was already in the arms of Jesus.”

“That’s a nice thought.”

“It’s a fact.”

I smiled and asked where the hand was found.

“Huh?”

“Forgive me, but I heard that she threw her hand after she removed it.”

“Oh.” He pointed to the fish bowl. “Landed in that.”

I looked at the murky water, wondering if the betta fish was traumatized in any way.

“It must have been a horrible sight for the Mrs.”

“Yep. She’s been acting odd too. Not herself. To be expected, I suppose.”

“Yeah. I suppose.” In perfect timing, a series of loud clangs rose from the kitchen downstairs.

“Your daughter just lied there afterward? She just, you know, bled to… sleep?”

“Way it looked.” Walter’s head was down. He inhaled a deep breath and blew out air, his lower lip rippling. After a pause, he said, “I’m really worried about Janice. Will you pray with me?”

I was a little startled. “Pray? Right now?”

“Is it a bad time for you, Mister?” He kept his eyes on mine and took a knee in the center of the floor.

“Um. No. I guess. Should I, uh, get down there with you? And, please, call me Don.”

“Unless you feel worthy to stand before the Lord.” His look assured me I was not.

I got down on both knees about six feet away from Walter. I closed my eyes and waited for him to begin. There was a long period of silence. I slowly opened my eyes. He was looking at me. He mumbled, “Go ahead.”

“Me?”

“Won’t you lead us in prayer?”

My heart was racing. Prayer had, in my adult years, become as foreign to me as I imagined classic literature or a quadratic formula was to him. I fancied myself a man of science. My Sunday school years were ancient history. My Holy Trinity was composed of Science, Engineering, and Math. And, as any practicing engineer, scientist, or mathematician would attest, the three of them are One.

Nevertheless, I nodded to him and closed my eyes. I began, “God, it is I and Mr. Sanders. I am Donald Peters. You know that, of course.” I cleared my throat. My hands were clenched into tight fists. “I would like to begin this prayer by giving you thanks, and, uh, praises.”

I heard Walter clear his throat. I opened my eyes.

“What are you doing,” he asked.

“I’m praying.”

He shook his head. “That’s not praying, and that is not how you should speak to the Lord.”

“I’m sorry?”

“That ‘You’ stuff. It’s not right.”

Walter sighed, closed his eyes, and said, “Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.” I closed my eyes again. He began, “Father, THOU hast made the heavens and the earth, and THY power and love know no end. We come to THEE today in prayer.” There was a long pause. I opened one eye and peeked at Walter who was looking at me. The gaze said, That is how it is done. He closed his eyes and began again. “We ask thee, Lord, to give special care to my wife and sister in Christ today. Janice is suffering, and we know that no one knows suffering like thou Son Jesus, and…”

As he prayed, I remembered seeing the bumper sticker on an old Ford F-150 parked in the front yard as I pulled in the gravel driveway. If it ain’t King James, it ain’t bible.

“Thou art the Great Physician and there is no need for the wicked medicine of men if we trust in thee. Janice is a kind soul, Lord. Thou knowest this better than anybody. We ask, O, Heavenly Father, that…”

I pictured his daughter lying there on the bed cutting her hand off with a rusty old saw blade. I saw her throw it across the room.

“That old serpent, the devil, cannot have her, Lord. He cannot keep her down and…”

She just lay there, lay there and died. Bled until she could never bleed again.

“Lift her up, King Jesus. Mount her on wings of eagles.”

He meant “Mount her up.” I meant to find out what really happened there. Who would, or rather, could commit suicide in such a manner? The other case was just as puzzling. Why remove one’s eyes or a hand? Why not slit a wrist or hang from a rope in a quicker, more painless and socially acceptable way of offing one’s self?

“And now, O Lord, I will speak to you in the tongues of angels.”

I watched Walter adjust his body, placing his other knee on the floor. He raised his hands to the sky and lifted up his head. With his eyes remaining closed, he began chanting and mumbling words, or non-words that I would not know how to spell or even pronounce. I’m no angel after all.

After a while, his arms started waving back and forth. They began trembling. His upper body would fall down, back to the floor, and then up again in a slow rhythm. Down and up.

I wondered how long he could go on like this. I was hoping it would be long enough.

I slowly got to my feet, keeping an eye on Walter. I walked softly toward the bed and looked over the mattress. Seeing nothing of interest, I lifted one side of it up from the crates. I saw nothing underneath and felt nothing as I slid my hand under the part I could not lift up. I set it back down and looked back over my shoulder at Walter. He was still in a rapturous state. He continued the up and down movement. The waving. The chanting. The slobbering. His whole body was shaking a little. The only mumblings escaping his mouth that resembled real words were something like “Mama Mia”, “Shenandoah”, and “Oscar de la Fuente”.

I scanned the two walls the bed was against. Nothing. I bent down and examined the crates as best as I could. I had no idea what I was looking for, and didn’t find it. I thought of pulling the bed away from the walls to examine the unexposed sides of the crates, but expected there was no way I could do it without disturbing Walter’s conversation with the heavenly host.

It went on and on behind me, growing in volume.

I softly made my way to the dresser. The fish was interested in me for all of about two seconds before turning away and swimming to the opposite end of the bowl. I could picture it swimming between the fingers of Nora Sanders, her hand an aquamarine obstacle course. I could not find the nerve to open the drawers of the walnut-colored dresser. I would not have felt right about it anyway. I started to walk away when I saw it on the side of the dresser. Etched in and colored in red were the initials DM. Underneath was a heart.

Derrick Mapleton’s was the other body. The young man was found dead in his church on an altar, eyeballs missing. A bloody pocket knife was found folded in one of his overall pockets. A bloody spoon was in the other. He wore nothing under the overalls. The note was in his fist.

I had suspected all along that both cases were something more sinister than suicide. The carving in the dresser raised my suspicions. Did it prove a romantic relationship between the two, which is something a few of the residents of Dewey Hollow had suggested? The Sanders girl and the Mapleton boy had been really close since they were toddlers. The two were flirty with one another since their preteen years. They had often gone on walks alone in the woods in the months leading up to their deaths.

I jumped as Walter yelled out, “Woo Glory!” I turned around and saw him lying there, his back on the floor and his legs folded under themselves. His feet were tucked under his buttocks and his arms stretched out from his sides. More clanking came from the kitchen downstairs. It sounded purposeful to me. “Yes, Lord,” Walter yelled before resuming his unintelligible chants, this time softer than before. It sounded like he was wrapping it up.

I took a picture of the carving on the dresser with my cell phone. I walked back to my former place in the room and got back down on one knee. As he was saying his goodbyes to the angels above, I wondered if it was one of the victims’ parents that killed the two. Was an intimate relationship outside of marriage forbidden in Dewey Hollow? Was the punishment death? Did the pastor of the Dewey Church of the Lord and Savior execute justice? Or was there a jealous young man or woman out there, the third member of a lovers’ triangle?

Walter fell silent. I watched him raise his body back up on his knees, grunting as he did so. He took a deep breath and sighed. He looked at me and shot me a knowing look that said, THAT was some good stuff. He reached around into his back pocket and pulled out a comb. He gave his thinning, greasy hair two strokes from the comb, one on each half of his head. His free hand followed the comb, pressing his hair down against his scalp. He looked at me with a proud look on his face and said, “I got myself the gift of tongues.” He wiped the comb on his pants leg and put it back where he got it.

“It would appear you do, Mr. Sanders.” I smiled at him.

He stood up gingerly and placed the palms of his hands against the small of his back, leaning back and grunting. “I reckon we better head back down. I don’t like leaving her alone for too long.”

“I understand. May I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“Your daughter and the other guy. Mapleton. Did they have a relationship? More than just friends, I mean.”

He tilted his head. “Are you askin’ me if they were messin’ around?”

“Well, no, not necessarily messing around. Just if they were more than friends.”

Walter took a step toward me. “My daughter was pure. We bible believin’ people around here.”

I held up my hands. “I am sure she was pure, Mr. Sanders. That’s not what I’m getting at. All I mean is…”

“It is time for you to go, Don.”

“OK.” I did not want conflict. I nodded and turned toward the door. He stepped in front of me and opened it. I walked out into the hall and headed toward the steps. Mrs. Sanders was at the base of the stairs wiping her hands on a hand towel. “Walter,” she said, “Can you bring down the dishes from our room? I’ll show our guest out.”

“Yep,” I heard him say behind me. I turned to tell him goodbye, but he was already heading away toward their room. I made my way down the steps. Janice was still wiping her hands vigorously and was studying me. She tilted her head. “Mister, do you think my Nora kilt herself?”

The question surprised me. I averted my eyes and began, “I, uh…”

“Well, she didn’t. That Derrick boy didn’t either.”

I took a step closer to her. I took a peek up the stairs to make sure Walter was not within hearing distance. “Were Norma and Derrick a couple?”

She leaned forward. I could see the faint freckles on her face for the first time. I could smell the bourbon on her breath.

She simply said, “Duh.” Shaking her head like she was disappointed in me, she pointed in Walter’s general direction. “And that fool up there knows it too. He is just protecting her reputation, is all.”

“Well, then, I have to ask. Do you think there was foul play involved?”

“Foul play? You mean murder?”

“Yes, ma’am. Murder.”

She peered deeper into my eyes. She knocked on my forehead lightly with a fist. “You are a confused soul. Ain’t you?” She slung the dish towel across her shoulder. “Follow me.”

We walked into the kitchen. The back door I had come in earlier was standing open. A table was in the center of the kitchen. On it was a small, pocket-sized bible. She picked it up and handed it to me. There was a thin strip of paper marking a page.

“It wasn’t murder. It wasn’t suicide. And it wasn’t an accident,” she said. I wondered what was left. “Have a nice trip back home, Mister,” she continued. “That book has the truth you are looking for.”

I nodded goodbye to her, feeling a little frustrated and confused. I turned and walked out the door and to my truck. I watched her pull the door closed. I got in and leaned back in the driver’s seat. Frustrated, I sighed. I started to reach into my pocket for the ignition key and realized the bible was still in my hand. It was green and the perfect size for a breast pocket. Printed on the cover was The New Testament of Jesus Christ. Under the title it read, Words of Christ in Red. I had no doubt those words would also be in 17th century English.

I turned to the page marked by the slip of paper. It was The Gospel of Mark. Sections of the ninth chapter were highlighted. Seven verses were not only highlighted, but underlined in pencil. I put on a pair of reading classes I had in the console and began reading at the forty-third verse. The words were in red. Christ said, “And if thy hand offend thee, cut if off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched.”

My heart rate picked up. I began feeling nauseas. I swallowed and read on.

After Christ talked about an offending foot, he stated in the forty-seventh verse, “And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.”

I took off my glasses and dropped them onto the passenger seat. I closed the bible and set it down beside the glasses. I was feeling a rush of emotions.

I thought of a young Nora Sanders wanting to touch Derrick Mapleton. I thought of her hand on his shoulder. His back. His thigh. His crotch. That hand making her sin, leading her to hell, keeping her from eternal life.

I thought of Derrick looking at the young, tight curves of Nora’s body, wanting her, lusting in his heart. His eye causing him to sin. Which eye?

I took the wrong one out the first time.

I started the pickup and headed down the dirt path that led from the Sanders’ place. I turned down the highway that wound through the hollow. I felt sorry for the forbidden couple. I pictured them lying in separate places and times, bleeding to death. They expected to live up until the very end; believed to the very point they lived no more.

It wasn’t murder. It wasn’t suicide. It wasn’t an accident.

It was something else.

 

 

BIO

billy saulsBilly R. Sauls writes fiction and lives with his wife, Deborah, in Knoxville, TN where he attended the University of Tennessee. He has two sons, a step-daughter, and another on the way.

 

 

 

Bryce A Johle

Indiana

by Bryce A. Johle

 

 

 

Vibrations on the windowsill jarred my eyes open, liberating me from a dream. I reached for my phone and read the text from my dad.

“Did momma tell you the lousy news? Bout me?” he said.

“Nope,” I said.

“I went to the doctor yesterday.”

“Okay?”

“Doc told me I have heart problems, which I knew the heart wasn’t right, and a failing liver.”

I didn’t reply. Instead, I waited for a follow-up text, knowing he wouldn’t just let me go away from this. Only two minutes later, it came.

“The doc at the V.A. told me, ‘how do you want to die? A failing liver or heart?’” he said. He attached an angry-faced emoji to the end of the text. Another message came soon after this one.

“My blood isn’t getting filtered as it should, which causes lots of serious problems…he said it’s got toxins, inclusive of animal serum.”

“Wtf does that mean?” I said.

“Doc says maybe I was working with animals, or contracted something from animals.”

“Did you suggest the cat?”

“No. But cat has hooked me a dozen times. The doc asked what all the punctures were on my arms.”

I tossed my phone back onto the windowsill and pulled the sheets up over my shoulders. I laid there calculating the meaning of the items spread around the room. There were the television and PlayStation that I never turned on, the dwindling shelves of food, and posters I rarely glanced at pasted all over the walls. My eyes stuck to a couple of apples that I had collected, sitting on my desk. One was green, the other red, but both were brightly pigmented. Somehow, I felt inferior to all of these objects. Each one wanted to do its job and I wouldn’t let it. The apples would rot in a short while, and their vanity, which I assumed they must have had, would be replaced with insecurity when their crisp colors turned pallid, and their taut flesh wilted. I would watch them change, until one day the fruit flies came, and I had to throw them out. Even then, I would be unmoved.

Rolling over, I gazed up at the ceiling and recounted every detail of the film that screened in my head before I woke up.

I found myself in my church, listening to voices close by. I crept my way toward the open double-doors to the sanctuary, and poked my head in just enough so I could see the four armed bodies sitting on the front pew, with a fifth pacing back and forth in front of them, a man shouting peremptory gibberish. This one came to an abrupt halt in both commanding and pacing. He snapped his attention to the doors, and I knew he saw me.

“Get him,” he said. For the first time, he formed actual words. The four bodies immediately sprung to their feet, drawing their pistols from shoulder holsters as they ran towards me. I booked it up the stairs, racing with adrenaline to the next floor. They shot at my hand as I gripped the newel post, missing by an inch when I turned to continue up the next flight. I ran faster. Assuming I knew my own church better than them, I sprinted through mazes of hallways, stairwells, and Sunday school rooms.

I thought I’d lost them when I made a round trip back to the sanctuary, landing with tip-toes at the back room divided by curtains. I slipped behind them and sat down in a corner to catch my breath, careful not to make a thud as my ass hit the floor. Footsteps came before I could react to change my hiding place. The curtains were ripped open, then spread all the way apart when one of the bodies spotted me. He raised a pistol, retightened his fingers around the grip, and I half rolled over and wrapped my arm around my eyes.

Just before the shot was fired, I heard a galumphing movement, and a metal rattling—but I wasn’t hurt. I removed my arm from my eyes with reticence, and saw my dad standing with his back to me. His back had an unfortunate hole in the left side. The steel cane in his right hand fell to the floor with an echoing bang and rattle as his grip loosened, and he fell. I noticed my brother, Jace, standing in the doorway across the room, staring at the back of the body that just shot our father.

Then everything was black. The scene continued a moment later, but I played a different part. I stood there in the curtained-off room, staring at myself sitting on my ass, helpless in the corner. I saw my dad lying dead on the floor, facing me. I held the gun.

Back in bed, my fingers were curled in the sheets, securing them, when I realized I was trying to make myself cry. It wouldn’t come, so I gave up and let my thoughts take over again.

The dread I felt when I knew that guy was going to kill me was tremendous, and thank God my dad stepped in front of the bullet for me. I wouldn’t have done the same thing for him. There’s a theory that when you die in your dreams, you die in real life. I never really knew if it was true or not, but it’s better safe, than dying as a martyr in your sleep, right?

Feeling compelled to think about my dad now, I started collating memories. For as long as I could remember, my dad walked with a cane, which I guess was a result of his back injury from when he built houses for a living. He took heavy steps to the kitchen each morning, every other beat on the floor accompanied by the distinct metal rattle of adjustable steel. On the counter he prepared his breakfast: a paper plate cluttered with pills of assorted colors that looked like a children’s ball pit. Then he poured a bowl of cereal and a cup of coffee. He always ate his cereal standing in front of the living room window, staring out. Every fall, when the first licks of frost could be seen on the grass, he said, “Ya know, I might not be around too much longer. I might not even make it to next Christmas.” He stood there staring, talking between chews. “And you better learn to help your mother around here when I’m gone.”

“Yeah, okay,” I said.

“I’m serious, Hal. I’m not as healthy as I used to be.”

“Yep. Neither is the dog.”

My dad sighed and turned away, walking back to the bedroom where he spent most of the day napping.

This dialogue was tradition, and only one of many scenarios that has made my dad a king of uncomfortable situations. Telling me he’s dying via text was a brand new one. I was disturbed by it for a moment, before I realized the undeniable terror of receiving that news in person. Surely I would say something offensive I didn’t mean. Either that, or I’d say nothing, roll my eyes, and go to my room.

The thing was, I just couldn’t stop thinking about my dog. Twelve years ago we bought him, and named him Indiana. I picked him out myself, and grew up with him. I played with him, taught him tricks, and took long, cozy naps with him. But now he was on his way out, marking his last days with sluggishness, arthritis, and difficult breathing. I loved Indy, but I was grateful to be apart from him for long periods while I was at school. My prayers wished for his release when I wasn’t around.

Then I got a kitten last summer. It was from a litter my brother’s cat had, so I got it for free. For months I begged my mom to let me get one, so I was ecstatic when she said I could have it. I called him Dr. Venkman. His immediate purpose was to serve as a companion for stress. Spending so much time with him, I was attached, and gradually paid less and less attention to Indiana.

I prayed about my dad after he texted me that morning. If they weren’t answered, I was going to be stuck with a situation I might not know how to accommodate. My chest felt indecisive about whether or not it should be constricted and stealing my energy. In the past, Jace had always gotten along with my dad, talking about cars, sports, and women. My brother was older, so he got to experience and know my father before he started to go bad. Sometimes they reminisced about those good times, like when they played baseball in the backyard, and my dad cheering Jace on at games. He taught him how to change the oil on a car, what to do if the air conditioner conks out, and how to replace the brakes. Jace was always my dad’s “buddy,” as he would call him right in front of me.

Our bond was different than theirs, even when we were screaming at each other. I addressed him when I needed help fixing something, and we shared a groove for the occasional classic rock song, but that was about it. I only knew my dad as a sick, frustrated old man who wouldn’t stop barking at me. Disabled as he was, he never did any of those dad things with me. I could care less about cars, and I didn’t know the first thing about sports. All I got were his condescending Vietnam parables. When he would come out from his bedroom just to catch me occupying myself by studying and reading, it evoked a rage in him. He would call me lazy, compare me to my brother, and tell me I don’t know what’s hard, that he was at war when he was my age.

Dads say these things, though, so I thought I still loved him—but I also thought it might be that love where you say it and want to believe it, but daydream about his burden being finally eliminated. I wished so hard that it was as simple as getting another cat.

 

Winter came, and I had submerged myself into my final papers, all the while blasting Christmas music and pissing off my roommates and neighbors. My mind was on one track, which was wrapping up the semester and heading home for the holidays to see Dr. Venkman and Indiana, drink some festive beer, and spend some quality time with Giada and Bobby Flay. My mom helped me load my junk into the van and we had a tranquil drive home, listening to Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas on repeat and discussing how school went.

After pulling into our driveway, my heart started to knock against my chest, and I tried to keep my cool, holding my lips shut tight so my veritable glee wasn’t as obvious. From the open hatch, I grabbed what I could and carried it inside, tracking in snow that melted on the kitchen tiles like a pat of butter in a frying pan. I set everything down in the living room, where my dad met me on the green shag rug.

“Hello, son,” he said. An unashamed smile showed his coffee-stained, rotting teeth when he wrapped his arms around me. Those smug expressions always made me wonder how he wasn’t disgusted with himself for being in Vietnam, and raising me to feel bad for not going through a similar struggle. I hugged him back with two quick, one-handed pats on the back, then tried to rip myself away, and run back to the van for my suitcases. When I found myself captured, claustrophobia set in and I panicked. Then he fell to the floor, pulling me along before releasing me and clutching his left arm. I backed up and watched him writhing on the carpet, making a figure impression in the shag.

My mom eventually saw him and called an ambulance. At the hospital, she, Jace, and I were sitting around my dad’s bed, waiting. I looked at him for a long time, thinking about the dog. I felt inferior to him and his heart monitor declaring the current eminence of his life. If I had the means to save the war hero, I know I wouldn’t move an inch out of my uncomfortable hospital chair; I would wait for the fruit flies to come.

When the digital wave pulled tight and the final tone lingered in my ears, I expected to feel an overwhelming rush in my stomach, like bat wings flapping and turning over against my entrails. I almost thought I’d cry for once, at least a tear or two. Instead, I felt indifferent. It was the same feeling as when I get a paper back in class, and read the “85%” written on the front: not happy, but not remarkably angry, either.

As the nurse stopped the ringing, those texts from only a month earlier echoed in recollection:

“Did momma tell you the lousy news? Bout me?”

“The doc at the V.A. told me, ‘how do you want to die? A failing liver or heart?’”

I felt no defined sense of finality then, and I didn’t feel it now, either. That’s when it hit me that my dad had been dead for years. At least, the image had been created a long time ago. I thought of an ice tray being filled with water, each mold flooding one at a time. Every memory of my dad was a hint that filled a mold. The first one was when elementary school classmates mistook him for my grandpa. Eventually the tray filled up with doctor reports, insatiable anger, and longer, more frequent naps that pulled him out of sight. Today, the water turned to ice.

As we each stood beside the bed watching his inert body, I broke the silence and said, “I expected it sooner.”

 

BIO

Bryce A JohleBryce A. Johle is from Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He is a senior at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania currently completing his bachelor’s degree in Professional Writing. His work has appeared in Shoofly Literary Magazine, of which he is now a managing editor.

 

 

 

 

Pushing Michaelmas

by Patrick Burr

 

 

Bartibus Primshaw walked to the butcher’s each Friday morning at ten o’clock. The silver chimes tittered when he entered. He’d smile at the butcher’s daughter, who helped her father around the shop as a way of paying for her studies at the seminary, wait his turn in line, and once at the front would order three pounds of flank steak — a week’s lunch and dinner. He’d nod to the butcher upon taking his meat, then leave a tip in the polka-dotted jar on the counter marked “for school, for God.”

Bartibus’s philosophy — one he’d found to work well for him, so well that never had a reason arisen to question its verity — was this: A smile is as good as a payday; a wink, as a sunrise — so they say. Always keep moving; you’re nothing if not doing.

No one had taught him to think this way — not with the explicit aim of doing so, at least. His parents had been kind, but they guarded flaws of their own. Rather, he’d acquired the disposition by observing the Now.

All was defined and definable in this Now. Bartibus never spoke its name — not from fear, but to preserve an economy of words so as not to muddle its perfection. All of life was thus labeled, and all humanity and societal interaction were in turn stamped by the Moment in exactly the form in which it appeared. This manifested itself in Bartibus, and he maintained himself within the idea via a strict code of objective honesty. But there’s more to the story of Mister Primshaw than our inane attempts to explain his guarded silence can capture.

It was on one such Friday that Bartibus entered the butcher’s shop to find it empty. The lights were off. He called first the daughter’s name, then the butcher’s. No one answered. He found a note scotch-taped to the glass refrigerator left of the cash register.

“Gone to church,” it read. “If you must take, leave money here. RIP Tom.”

It was normal for the butcher to leave the shop unattended — he was a trusting man, especially when it came to his fellow townsfolk. But who was Tom? Tom Richards, the middle-aged barkeep at the Finn Stern Brewery? Perhaps. Other than that, he could think of no one who went by the name. Deciding the anonymous man to be a close acquaintance of the butcher’s, Bartibus thought to go up to the church to comfort a grieving friend.

A brisk October wind whistled through the dogwoods and oaks lining Main Street. It was the sort of day, Bartibus thought, which hinted at impending winter while clinging fast to the sinews of a bygone summer of heat and requited eternity. The wind chilled him as he ascended Colton Hill, but any discomfort which would have otherwise befallen him was countered in equal measure by the sultry rays of a midmorning sun.

He hummed as he climbed, as was habit — nothing in particular, and everything in particular. Of the hazy half-truths which commingled in his mind and spurted from his mouth as a singular line of notes, he knew nothing — but that it was he who conjured them and spread them through the air about him was incontrovertible. Today the tune whirled from him in a quick staccato, as if impatient to fold itself into a finished product.

Soon the old, wooden church loomed, its white paint chipping, its roof half-devoid of tiles. Those remaining were tinged a sickly moss-green. The door creaked softly as he entered. The butcher and his daughter stood among a group of ten huddled around a short, mahogany casket.

The butcher, who was leaning on his hands at the casket’s foot, looked up when he heard Bartibus’ footsteps. Bartibus smiled and nodded to him.

“Hey there, Bart,” the butcher muttered, turning back to the coffin and wiping his eyes with the cuff of his beige wool sport coat. Bartibus joined the knot of mourners, sliding in next to the butcher and putting an arm around his shoulder. He peered into the coffin. A black-haired boy no older than seven or eight lay supine. His skin shone a pallid gray. His eyes were open, and his blank stare bore a hard hole in the patchwork roof. The butcher shuddered and shook off Bartibus’ hand.

“Don’t need comforting,” he mumbled through repressed sniffs. “Please.”

“Who was he?” asked Bartibus.

“My nephew. He was in town visiting with his mother. My sister. We were going to pick pumpkins this afternoon.” His voice was airy, a departure from his trademark growl. He paused to wipe a streak of clear snot from his upper lip before continuing. “Tuesday night, he slipped on some loose hay in the goat paddock. The animals got startled, and….” He trembled harder. Bartibus resisted the urge to hug him. “I saw it happen,” the butcher said. “I can’t believe he’s gone. I saw it happen.” He buried his face in one sausage-fingered hand and shuffled two steps to his right to hug his daughter, who wept silently.

“But he’s in God’s hands, now, brother,” said a stout, bearded man standing at the boy’s midriff. “In Him, purpose is bestowed upon both the living and the dead. He’s in a better place.” The butcher raised his head and nodded in assent.

Bartibus observed the other men and women gathered around the boy. A beefy woman stood at the coffin’s head. A scrawny man with black hair the same shade as the boy’s reached his arm as far as he could around her broad shoulders. Bartibus turned to the body. He ran his eyes over its length, from shoes to head. The child looked peaceful, he thought, in his Sunday finery, his face jaded by neither fear nor excitement, neither contempt nor Earthly love.

Bartibus found himself shaking with a kinetic, frenetic energy, as if he were a bolt of lightning which had been struck by a second, equally powerful bolt.

“But doesn’t death open new doors, doors we cannot even dream of for their majesty?!” Bartibus exclaimed, turning towards the butcher. “You said you can’t believe he’s gone — but where has he gone to? Do you not entertain thoughts of him now in the same way you would if he were alive?”

The butcher frowned at him. Bartibus, breathing as if he had just run in the town’s annual Turkey Trot, continued, his voice rising and trembling.

“The most you can know of anyone is the idea you form of them in your head. Are those ideas not still etched on the tablets of your minds? All of you?”

“But he’ll never walk among us again,” cried the broad-shouldered woman. “My son … he was my son! And now there will be no new memories, no fresh carvings on his totem for us to celebrate.”

“And this is a bad thing?” Bartibus asked. “Annul your marriage of convenience to bodily biases! Break your minds from the habit of acknowledging the familiar dogma as unimpeachable! Then you shall come to see universal Truth. Then you shall recognize eternity.”

All ten of the mourners glared at him in haughty curiosity. Then the butcher huffed, “So you’re saying it’s better he’s dead? At seven years old? Here I thought you were a man, Bartibus. An honest man. You’re no better than, than….” He allowed the thought to peter out, instead clenching his fists and biting his tongue.

“Honest I am,” replied Bartibus. “All I’m saying is, what is a body but uncertainty incarnate? That the boy was spared of ups and downs and left the world behind him before it could engrave upon him the broken half-ideas of pain and the twisted norm of feigned empathy is beautiful. Do you not agree?”

“Feigned?” sobbed the butcher’s daughter. “So we don’t care for our blood, now?”

Bartibus signed. “You miss my point. In willing yourself to befriend sorrow, you have clouded your balance.”

She glared at him. He returned her gaze with a steady, unblinking tenacity, smiling softly before again rolling into speech.

“Look,” he continued, “look how peaceful he is, how unaffected. How ideal. Death, my friends, is the ultimate beauty, far more than music or laughter or sensuality or supposed kinship. In its depth it is paramount, incontrovertible, true.”

Bartibus felt ten sets of bloodshot eyes training as rifle scopes to his forehead.

“You’d best leave,” said the butcher, who had stopped sniffling and now massaged his snot-streaked knuckles. Bartibus almost laughed at the contrast of their sorrowful disposition and his unwavering knowledge of life and the irreducibility the ox-yoke holding it and death in tandem.

“Can you not see?!” he cried. “Do you not know? Death is neither good nor bad, it simply is, and because of this it is All Good!”

“You’re talking circles,” said the butcher, turning towards him and rolling up his sleeves. “Circles and circles and bullshit. I said leave, you hear?” The broad woman sobbed harder.

“Just go,” she choked. “Let him leave, please. He wouldn’t want us to fight over him. Not here. Not like this.”

One final glance at the boy’s body forced the passion of realization from Bartibus’ chest. He skipped from the church, laughing in naive bliss.

He flung the doors open. They creaked on their rusted hinges. The breeze met his face before the sun’s warmth hit him. For a moment, the grin on his face wavered. Then, balance was restored. With a click of his heels against the rotting wood, he hopped down the steps, taking two at a time, and bounced onto the yellow grass of the churchyard.

What would be best now, he thought, would be a walk. A walk, followed by a fine steak. The butcher’s was unlocked. He’d take the usual, and make sure to leave a 20 in his daughter’s tip jar. For a person her age, there was no substitute for education.

 

 

BIO

Patrick BurrPatrick Burr studied philosophy at Vanderbilt University and University College London. This is his first published piece of fiction.

 

 

prophecy

by john sweet

 

 

woke up naked and blind
and wanted to call you
but didn’t

felt the warmth of
someone next to me

the need for executions

for the deaths of innocent
mothers and children

something to pass the time
until my vision returned

 


The Myth of St. Maria

 

You and I, cowards like Picasso, like
fists on doors in the empty hours
of the night, soldiers acting on orders,
boots through sleeping skulls, and when
victory is declared the words all sound like
screams. The men who speak them have
the heads of birds, with smiles all
blood and gore.

You ask for flight, you receive paper
airplanes. You receive the gift of loss, the
secrecy of houses, the killer running across
the back yard but his lover left behind.

Don’t call it a war.

Don’t ask about the children.

They were raised to believe in Jesus,
and then they were abandoned. Were left at
the edges of highways, at the borders of
anonymous states and unnamed countries,
and when strangers approached, they fled
into the wilderness.

When the helicopters came in low,
the forests exploded in flames.

It was the belief that all truth could be
measured by money. It was the hands of
priests turned into grasping claws, and the
paintings were all slashed and the
curtains ripped down, and what was left at
the end of the day was a nation of
broken windows

The knowledge that we were all
descended from whores.

That Christ was only spoiled meat
left out by an indifferent hand.

That everything is sacred.

 

 

the arrogance of light

 

said this is my gift to you and
gave me a book of blank pages, gave me
a coward’s smile
which mirrored my own

it was the war,
the one just before you were born,
and we stumbled through piles of corpses
with stretchers and whiskey

with pistols, because certain questions
can only ever have one answer

because the pages were blank and
we needed blood
and the girl said she was waiting for
                                    her father

said he’d be there soon, but of course he
was dead, and then so was she

we couldn’t take any chances,
you see

we’d been given gifts

beautiful new poisons which were
no good without victims

bombs,
which the scientists warned us were
                                    only theories,
but god they worked so well

and we were given clean white walls,
and so we burned the shadows of women,
of children, of sleeping babies
into them, and we called it a victory

we asked the doctor to keep the
prisoners alive until they’d
answered all of our questions

we improved upon the crucifixion

took turns raping the girl before
we killed her, and she never
made a sound

was just another statistic by the time we
got to her younger sister, and in
the papers we were being called heroes

in the villages, we were having
the men dig their own shallow graves
and it was just a precaution,
you see

we were just protecting the future

we were making sure the
truths would survive

we had this book,
and we were writing them down

 


explanation

 

all of my poems in
the past tense

all of my reasons

any number of excuses

four days of rain & the
truck wouldn’t start and
there was nothing i could say
to make my son stop
crying

there was nothing i could
do but hold him

both of us very quiet
there in the dark

 


slaying the angel

 

mother says it was easy,
was like falling in love, says
they beat the girl together,
then just beat her to death

says they left her in the shed
for two months,
then dumped her in the bay

says it just happened,
like a poem or a war

was just the inevitability of
small bones breaking
beneath the weight of joy

 

 

BIO

john sweetjohn sweet, b. 1968, still numbered among the living. a believer in writing as catharsis. an optimistic pessimist. opposed to all organized religion and political parties. avoids zealots and social media whenever possible. latest collections include THE CENTURY OF DREAMING MONSTERS (2014 Lummox Press) and A NATION OF ASSHOLES W/ GUNS (2015 Scars Publications).

 

 

 

Jennifer Porter

Army Mom

by Jennifer Porter

 

 

Thelma was trying to brush the sand out of her big hair before her husband Larry came home for the Last Supper she’d planned, when her fifteen-year-old daughter Eunice began shouting. Now since Neecy did a lot of shouting (about her teachers, her frenemies, the Internet being down, her mother’s absent-mindedness) Thelma went on yanking the brush, grimacing at herself in the mirror and realizing she’d yet again applied sunscreen inconsistently and was now wearing a white mask where her sunglasses had been during their family day at the beach. Not that the whole family had gone to the beach; Larry, his typical fun-sucker self, had gone to work instead.

Eunice barged through the bathroom door.

“What is it, Eunice? You scared me to death!” Thelma turned, and with her eyes wide, looked something like the Hamburglar.

Eunice was momentarily shocked before erupting in laughter. It seemed to Thelma that lately Neecy either mocked her or yelled about her motherly incompetence. With her thickly-lashed, large, bedazzled-green eyes and disconcerting stare, Neecy was in high-demand as a plus-sized model. “You forgot …,” she said, pointing and smirking.

Thanks to Neecy, she knew every last one of her beauty flaws. And what she should do about them—immediately! Thelma liked her big hair. It had snagged Larry back in the 90s. Change, to Thelma, felt like panties riding up her crack. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I was using the bathroom.”

Scooter, Thelma’s oldest child and the guest of honor at the Last Supper (or the Judas if you wanted to look at it that way and Thelma did look at it that way), popped his head in the door. “Anybody seen Lucky?”

“That’s what I was trying to tell you,” said Eunice, “when you frightened me with your new sunburn. Look, Scooter, look at Mom’s face. She did it again.”

“My name is Lawrence,” said Scooter.

Eunice rolled her eyes.

“Can’t you find Lucky?” Thelma asked. Lucky was Larry’s dog: a Chihuahua he’d adopted at a last chance pre-execution guilt trip in front of the Petco as he was going into Michael’s for more scrapbooking supplies. “He’s lucky I happened by,” is what Larry told everyone when they met the dog. “He’s lucky I’m the kind of guy that looks past the scabs. He’s lucky I have a tender spot for the abandoned. He’s lucky …,” and at this point Thelma would chime in and tell Larry to can it. There was nothing Larry liked more than talking about himself in the guise of talking about something else.

“No, and come to think of it, I can’t remember him being in the van on the ride home,” said Scooter. “It was quiet instead.”

“Or getting him out of the van,” said Neecy, “when we got home.”

Thelma shook her head, trying to remember. It had been a wonderful day; the hot sun had made her so sleepy. She’d not slept well the night before, thinking about Scooter’s betrayal. “Come to think of it,” she said, “I can’t even remember him being on the blanket when we packed up and left.”

Eunice shook her head, her large eyes growing larger, a terrible realization spreading across her pale pink cheeks.

“Can you?” Thelma asked Scooter.

“No, Mom, I can’t. I think we left him at the beach,” he said, matter-of-factly, all grown up.

“What? No way!” Thelma burst through her children and began yelling for the dog. “He’s got to be here somewhere.” She frantically raced around, looking under beds, inside closets, down in the basement, calling and whistling for Lucky. Scooter searched the fenced back yard and Larry’s tool shed, and Neecy searched the van.

Larry and Thelma’s café au lait colored ranch house had been erected on a grubby spot of land in a rue-burban development, as Thelma called it. Rural as in twenty minutes to the nearest grocery store and suburban as in a bona fide subdivision built upon formerly-farmed acres. It was as if the lower middle-class development had been plunked down into the middle of a stubbled cornfield from the sky.

Thelma and the kids re-grouped on the front concrete porch. “Oh my God,” said Thelma. “I left your father’s dog at the beach.”

“Yep,” said Scooter. “I think you forgot him.”

“Me? It’s my fault? I’m the old person. Where were you guys when this was happening? Your brains are fresh and young and not filled with cryptic memories. Why couldn’t you have remembered Lucky?”

“Uh, maybe because tomorrow I go to boot camp and maybe, I, uh, have something more important on my mind,” said Scooter. “Like the United States Army!”

Thelma gave Lawrence her don’t-you-dare glare, and he averted his eyes. But before she could say anything, Neecy started.

“Yeah, and like, Alexa isn’t talking to Junie because Junie broke up with Nicole to date some stupid boy from another school and so, Nicole is like, completely crushed. She loves Junie. I had to stay up all night on the phone to keep Nicole from cutting,” said Neecy. “I’m tired!”

“Okay, okay. Let’s think about this,” said Thelma and she raised her left hand against the onslaught. “Not Nicole. I mean, not Nicole right now. Cutting is a terrible thing. Don’t you ever cut yourself, Eunice. You know you can talk to me about anything, anything at all. Right? Did you tell Nicole to talk to a trusted adult?”

“Yes, Mom.”

Thelma nodded. “Good. Okay. Lucky! Let’s think about Lucky and oh my God, what am I going to do? What time is it?” Thelma waited for Scooter to check his cell. It was 5:30 p.m. and Larry was due home in fifteen minutes. Thelma collapsed on the porch. “Your father is going to freak out if anything happens to that damn dog.”

* * *

Thelma had wanted to do something special for Scooter’s last day as a civilian. He was due at the bus station at six the following morning. Someone needed to do something to mark the momentous occasion as Larry acted like it was just a regular work day. But it wasn’t: Scooter was soon to become a brain-washed drone of the over-reaching war machine at the hands of the United States Military.

Scooter was already incessantly nagging Thelma to call him Lawrence, rather than the nickname he’d gotten at the age of seven, when he spent an entire summer riding around the neighborhood on his silver scooter with three other boys on their scooters. A natural born leader, Lawrence was quickly in command of the gang and the moniker stuck.

Thelma corralled Scooter, Eunice, and Lucky into her purple mini-van and they headed to the Metamora State Recreation Area, where Thelma had always taken the children to experience the “beach.” 80-acre Lake Minnewanna had a decent strip of sand and was, otherwise, largely wooded. The kids could walk away from the swimmers and cast a line into one of the coves, maybe catch and release a bluegill, a pumpkinseed, or a largemouth bass.

Thelma sat on an old quilt under a tree, near a picnic table but a distance from the beach. Lucky was a barker and a sorry mess, with bulging bloodshot eyes and a skin disorder that resulted in the shedding of large patches of oozing pink skin. He smelled like the bottom of the refrigerator crisper drawer filled with vegetables but never emptied. The dog was on more pills than Thelma’s Nana. And on a special diet. And he had to wear a sun-blocking outfit whenever he went outside. Plus sit beneath a beachside umbrella. When she complained to Larry about how much work his dog was, he said, “What do you want me to do about it? I have to work!”

Thelma’s secret theory was that Larry didn’t love Lucky as much as he said he did. The kudos he raked in for taking care of such a sick pet fed his emaciated ego. The middle child of a family of eight, Larry had been either ignored or berated and was spending his entire adulthood making up for it.

After she hooked Lucky to the tie-out and arranged his umbrella, she put on her bucket hat and slathered her exposed skin with sunscreen, and watched her boy fish for what could be the last time. What if ISIS kidnapped him and one of those God-awful videos was produced? She’d never survive it. If Thelma had her way, her son would be off to art school or poet’s school or even, training to be a lineman for DTE Energy, like Larry.

Now, Thelma realized she’d had to pull herself together every time one of the kids came over to the cooler for a drink. Even Lucky had been unusually quiet after scarfing down the hotdog Scooter tossed him. But he’s never quiet. Had she fallen asleep after lunch? Maybe Lucky had slipped out of his collar and wandered away. He loved to rub his body in wild animal waste. He could be sitting there at the edge of the woods right now, wondering where they were, smelling like a used diaper in the bottom crisper drawer.

“Tell your father I had to run to the store,” Thelma said to the kids.

“Aren’t you going back to the beach to look for Lucky?” said Eunice.

“Yes, of course I am! But please don’t tell your dad. I’m sure Lucky’s sitting right there, waiting for us to come back and get him.”

“Oh, I hope so,” said Eunice. “Poor Lucky! We just left him.”

Thelma took a deep breath.

“This is just great,” said Scooter. “My last day here and Mom forgets the dog. Just great.”

“It’s going to be okay, Scooter—”

“Lawrence!”

“Yes, Lawrence, everything’s going to be fine. I’ll just run up there and get Lucky and dinner will be a little late. Go play the Xbox. I’ll be right back. And promise me something.”

“Don’t tell Dad!” they said in unison.

* * *

After Thelma dropped Scooter off at the bus station and said her goodbyes without embarrassing him in front of the other new recruits (she even remembered to call him Lawrence), she sat in her van and cried, using up three travel packs of Kleenex. She’d rolled out of bed at three in the morning unable to pretend to sleep, worried sick about Scooter and Lucky and ISIS and global warming and the new Enbridge natural gas pipeline they were running through her township and Nicole cutting herself. She desperately wanted to take a handful of melatonin capsules but knew she’d eventually crash and be unable to drive to the bus station.

She’d turned on the desktop PC and started placing Missing Dog ads at every site she could find until she heard Scooter come down the stairs. Then she made him his last good breakfast for a very long time. His favorite: french toast with a dash of nutmeg and real maple syrup, thick-sliced bacon from the local farmer, and hash browns. Everything organic and whole and pure. Scooter had joined the Army in secret, only telling her after, and all she’d managed to say was, “I hope you like eating powdered fake food that comes out of poop brown bags.”

Larry, on the other hand, had sucked in his gut and puffed out his chest and said, “I’m proud of you, son. I considered the military when I was your age and just never had the balls to do it. Your Grandpa fought in Korea …”

“He was a cook on a Navy ship,” Thelma said. “He never even saw Korea.”

Larry sideways eyeballed her. “As I was saying …,” he said in his weird radio-announcer voice that he reserved for special occasions. He held in his paunch, so Thelma knew he’d wrap it up in a tag line before he ran out of breath. “Serving your, I mean, our,” (and here he glared at Thelma as if she didn’t know a damn thing about patriotism) “country is the finest sacrifice anyone can make. Thank you, Lawrence.”

Now she just sat there in the parking lot watching the bus get further and further away and seriously considered crawling into the far back seat and taking a three-year nap.

But, she couldn’t. Lucky was missing and she’d lied to Larry about it—the kids reluctant accomplices. She’d had every intention after returning from the beach to tell him the truth, but he’d gotten the Last Supper under way (much to her surprise), putting the steaks on the grill, and was doing his best to help her create a memory. The kids went along with it, doing their best to fake-it through, while Larry hoped Lucky could come home from the animal hospital tomorrow.

Later that night, after Scooter had gone to a good-bye party with his friends and Neecy had disappeared to play Xbox, Thelma took a deep breath and approached Larry. He was sitting at the dining table, his scrapbook supplies spread all around his thick, hairy arms as they rested on the table top. Colored stock paper, scissors that cut squiggles and zigzags, inked stamps of Chihuahuas, the Stars and Stripes, a boy fishing, and stickers that said things like: scooter, sundaes, son. Larry had his head down and tears dripped onto his scrapbook. There were shudders in his shoulders.

“He’ll be all right, Larry” Thelma said, and she held him from behind. “He’s a smart boy, a strong boy.”

“I’m sorry. I just couldn’t go to the beach with you today. I just … couldn’t do it.” He let out a deep sigh. “I never saw this one coming. You know? You spend so much time keeping them safe, mending boo-boos, teaching them how to be good and decent and then they go and want to be something and somebody you never imagined. A soldier, Thelma!” He shook his head. “He never even had a BB gun.”

Thelma rubbed Larry’s neck; his neck was sore after years of working as an electrical lineman. He didn’t have to be up on the poles so much anymore, he was mainly a recruiter now, convincing young people to learn the trade, but his neck stayed sore. Larry grabbed a napkin from the basket on the table and started to carefully wipe the scrapbook page he’d been working on. Larry had taken up scrapbooking on the advice of his union rep for its meditative qualities. Working with electricity had its inherent dangers.

“I like the font you used to write Lawrence,” she said.

Her husband brushed over the word he’d created with letter stickers along the top of the page with the tips of his fingers. “Yeah? I thought it fit him. Has some edge to it. He’s tough, like you, Thelma.”

“Like me?” she said. She didn’t really think of herself this way: on the inside she felt more like a fruit smoothie, everything a whipped mess.

“You’re the one that birthed him at home, and Eunice too! I almost passed out, couldn’t even cut the umbilical cord. Remember? The midwife had to sit me down on the bed.”

What she remembered was seeing Lawrence for the first time, his curly fair hair all wet and plastered against his scalp, his mewing mouth searching for her as she held him close. How his presence made the world a place she wanted to be in rather than a place she always wanted to escape. Having a baby had grounded Thelma.

He’d learned to nurse right away, unlike Neecy, and had taken his first steps at eight months. He’d spoken in complete paragraphs at eighteen months. She thought about all the ankle rubs she’d given him after he’d sprained an ankle skateboarding. How he always got right back up after wiping out; how he never gave up on learning a new trick, no matter how difficult or painful the learning process.

“He is tough,” she said. And she was grateful to Larry for making her realize this in a new way. “Okay, I’ve got to get to bed, Larry. Early day tomorrow. Give me a kiss.”

Thelma knew that if she didn’t find Lucky, she’d let down her family. She was the one that always made everything better. They were counting on her.

* * *

The afternoon of the first day of Scooter-No-More, Thelma plastered Metamora State Recreation Area with flyers of Lucky in his special sun-blocking outfit, with a construction grade stapler. Missing Diseased Chihuahua, the flyer read. Needs his medicine and cannot be exposed to sun. Obsessive barker. Stinks. Last seen in sky blue jammies with matching studded collar. Sometimes answers to Lucky, mostly ignores and does whatever he wants. Please help!

Every six feet, she stapled a flyer to whatever she could: trees, buildings, poles, edges of picnic tables. She hopped in her van and drove over the wooden bridge and then stapled the hell out of the campground that sat on the opposite side of Lake Minnewanna.

And then something dawned on her; she hadn’t even found Lucky’s leash when she’d returned (expecting him to be waiting, tail wagging) had she? Where was his diaper bag, as she called it, with all of his medicines, skin wipes, and allergen-free treats? She thought she remembered packing his umbrella, but it all seemed like a hazy dream with Scooter’s face enlarged and encompassing the center of her field of vision—a shitty grin on his face like one of those cartoons from when she was a kid. She wanted to smack that face and ask him what the hell? The Army! Jesus!

She drove back over to the scene of the disappearance and scoured the picnic area then she searched the nearby brush, garbage cans, even the barbecue grills, like Lucky on the scent of groundhog piss. No collar or leash. No diaper bag. Maybe the bag was at home and Lucky had gotten the leash untied from the tie-out. But where was the tie-out? Had Scooter pulled it out of the ground and set it somewhere at home? She couldn’t even ask him! She had to just wait for him to contact her. It felt like the United States Army had sliced off her right ventricle! Those bastards, seducing her son into being another rusty cog in the military-industrial complex Thelma hated. Why, your son scored so high on the aptitude test, Sergeant Cooper told her, in his boots in Thelma’s kitchen, he could be a Ranger.

“If you’re telling me that to make me feel any better,” she’d said, “forget it. There should be a law against you people talking to our children without our consent.”

“Lawrence is eighteen, Mrs. Spears. He’s an adult and can make his own decisions.”

“Yeah, that’s what happened. He made this decision entirely on his own without you pressuring him. Sure, Sergeant Cooper, and there were WMD’s in Iraq.”

Thelma had to stop obsessing about her son. She had to let the Universe take care of him. She hopped in her van and drove home. What was she going to tell Larry?

***

It had not gone well with Larry. He’d thrown his big hairy arms up in the air like an exasperated Sasquatch. He couldn’t believe she couldn’t keep her eye on his poor little suffering dog—who never asked to be brought into this world and abandoned inside a deserted meth lab. The poison still oozing out of his little body. He didn’t believe her that she’d done all she could under the extreme circumstances with which she’d been faced, what with Scooter turning his back on all she’d taught him to get his Rambo on. She hadn’t meant to, but she threw a dagger when she reminded her husband of his inability to accompany them to the beach that day.

“So, you’re saying it’s all my fault?”

“Yes,” Thelma said. “I think that it’s fair if I say that. You can’t always faint away from the gnarlies of life, Larry. Being married means we’re on the same team, but if one of the team is always going solo on the obstacle course, then, then, it’s like not being married at all.”

She instantly regretted her words yet felt much better. Why did she always have to be the tough one? If anything happened to Thelma, who would take care of everyone? Larry? Ha. He couldn’t take care of himself. He was like a big baby.

No, what Larry really did was always turn the spotlight back to him. When Thelma was first pregnant with Lawrence and so nauseated she lost weight, Larry somehow hurt his back and couldn’t walk for a month. While Thelma was giving birth to Eunice, Larry suddenly got sick and left to buy cold medicine. When Thelma needed progressive lenses, Larry needed two pairs of stronger progressive lenses, one for inside and one for outside. Whenever Thelma scheduled a dental cleaning appointment, Larry claimed he needed an aching tooth pulled.

Now poor Larry was on the phone about his missing dog, basking in the glow of his family’s attention while she once again perused through “Found Dog” ads, called the local vet clinics, and posted flyers in grocery stores. Larry took mental health days, laid on the couch “worried sick” about Lucky, while Thelma manned the Lucky Rescue Mission Team. It didn’t matter that she’d lost her son, what mattered was Larry’s beloved Chihuahua was gone.

She hadn’t found the tie-out or the diaper bag and no one called about the flyer.

***

Oh my God! There were so many missing pets. Thelma couldn’t stand searching through the Craigslist ads. There were even ads about the dead pets people saw on the sides of roads. She got calls from people who were just trying to help, who thought maybe they’d seen Lucky here or there, or had seen a found ad that sounded like it might be Lucky and Thelma started taking down their names and numbers and then she started doing it too—trying to help people find their pets. Heck, she had to read both the lost and the found ads anyway and sometimes they seemed to match up. Missing beagle in Clarkston, found beagle in Ortonville. She’d call and they’d talk and she’d ask them to let her know and they’d call her back and sometimes just to talk and soon, Thelma found herself forgetting about Lucky. She began avoiding Larry out of fear he’d be able to see it on her face.

***

The Complex allowed Scooter to call when he arrived at Fort Benning. He called Thelma’s cell, not Larry’s, and she wanted to point this out when Larry jumped up off the couch after she said, “Scooter!” Instead, she put her cell on speaker phone.

“Hi, Mom,” her son said.

“Hi, honey.”

“Lawrence, Dad’s here too.”

Thelma rolled her eyes at her husband wasting precious phone seconds.

“Oh. Hi, Dad.”

“Hi, son. Didn’t expect me home, did you?”

“Mom, I’ve arrived safely at Fort Benning.”

“That’s good. I wish I could say the same for Lucky,” said Larry.

Thelma poked and shushed him.

“Mom!”

“Yes, Scooter, I’m listening,” she said, glaring at Larry.

“Please do not send any food or bulky items. I will contact you in 7 to 10 days to give you my mailing address.”

Larry grabbed the cell. “I took a few days off to look for Lucky. We can’t find him anywhere. He’s out there somewhere, but where, only God knows. Poor dog.”

Thelma yanked her cell out of his hands and stepped away. “Go on, Lawrence.”

“Thank you for your support, Mom. Good-bye for now. I love you guys.”

Larry and Thelma both said, “I love you too,” their voices competing.

“Mom?”

Thelma knew Scooter was deviating from the script and a lump rose in her throat. “Yes?”

“Don’t forget to write me.”

Thelma rushed the words, “I won’t.” She was certain they’d made her boy hang up before he heard her.

Would her non-conformist son be able to obey all those rules and procedures? The Army was going to try and break her boy’s indomitable spirit, maybe in physically cruel ways. “What the hell was that about, Larry? Jesus! He was calling me! His mother! You’re not even supposed to be here. All you can think about is that stinking dog! You couldn’t even shut up about it. It’s no wonder Scooter ran off!” Then she stormed away, slamming the door to her craft room.

***

During the summer, Thelma sold her handmade, sometimes holiday-themed, wreaths at outdoor arts and crafts fairs. When the children were little, they’d gone with her as Larry worked countless hours, especially after damaging storms. This arrangement allowed her to earn enough income to stay home with the children but have something to do during the alone hours of the school year. She gathered the wreath material in the nearby woods, her hands callused from bending and shaping the vinca, grape, and wisteria vines. Some of her most treasured memories were of taking the children to gather decorative elements, such as cattails, pheasant feathers, pine cones, abandoned bird nests, and if they were lucky, never-hatched lifeless, colored bird eggs.

But this summer, instead of crafting wreaths, Thelma used her workspace to write Scooter every day. He’d sent her a postcard with his mailing address and a couple of words about a possible phone call a few weeks later. She knew he’d have to “be good” to get his cell phone back and then she started imagining him wearing an orange jumpsuit. She’d have to shake her head and put him in his fatigues instead. Either way, he was a prisoner of his own accord. She’d give half her leg to have one more day with her boy in his Ninja Turtles slippers, his fat little belly sticking out over his drooping jammy pants, asking her for peanut butter crackers. At the age of four his hair had been the color of lightning.

Her heart just wasn’t in crafting anymore. She turned her hands palms up, palms down, startled at how used they appeared. Her knuckles bulged and the calluses had fossilized. Maybe she should do something different. What with Eunice going to college in three years. Plus, Larry was eligible for early retirement. It was time for Thelma to get out of the house.

Dearest Lawrence,

I’m thinking of going to college. When I was your age, the aptitude test said that I was good with numbers. I’ve been ignoring them since.

How is the Complex treating you?

Enclosed is a picture of your favorite Ninja Turtle Raphael and the angels painting by Raphael that makes me think of you when you were snuggly. I’m thinking of renting a small child, aged four, for about a week to get some snuggling.

Did the aptitude test tell you to be a soldier?

Love Always,

Mom

That night Thelma signed up for summer classes at the local community college: Beginning Russian 1 and Introduction to Homeland Security.

***

Thelma was studying her Russian when she got an alert that an email came in to LuckyRescueMissionTeam@gmail.com. Lucky had been missing for a month, but it had only really weighed on Thelma this past week after Scooter scolded her for not looking harder in his first phone call home. “It’s like you don’t care, Mom,” he’d said.

She’d wanted to tell him that maybe she didn’t. She’d wanted to tell him that for the first week of Scooter-No-More she checked to see if it was him when someone came home, her steps light and quick. And when it wasn’t him and she had to remember that it wasn’t going to be him because he’d joined the Army of all goddamn things, it was like a bucket of cold water over her head. Neecy started calling out when she walked in the door, “Mom, it’s me Neecy.” Then Thelma could be privately disappointed, her heart contracting enough that she sat down a moment or two before she went and said hello to her daughter.

She wanted to tell her boy that the house was different now that he was gone. There was a big empty space that followed her around like a haunting, and even when Neecy was there, all she could think about was that Scooter was not. Her job as Scooter’s mother was pretty much finished. And soon, Eunice would be gone too.

Besides, Lucky had made it apparent at every possible opportunity that he felt nothing but disdain for Thelma. Even though it was Thelma who wiped his oozing patches day in and day out and it was Thelma who took him fun places like the beach. Without the dog, Thelma’s day opened in unexpected ways. She could hang out at the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library reading the letters of Civil War soldiers or walk across Woodward Avenue to the Detroit Institute of Arts and stare at the Rivera murals. It didn’t matter that it was 10 a.m. and time for Lucky’s pills. Or noon and time for Lucky’s raw foods lunch. Or 2 p.m. and time for Lucky’s wipes again.

Thelma began truly enjoying her Post-Scooter Period. It was as if she’d embarked upon a third life. First she was a child then she was a mother and now she was … she didn’t know. Thelma would look in the mirror and ask, “And who might you be?”

But every day, Neecy asked if there was any news on the little creature and every day she shed a tear or two that there wasn’t and when Scooter had scolded her, well, Thelma realized she was being hard-hearted. It was her kids really that had gotten to her because Larry’s “depression” over the whole thing had only chafed like polyester pants. Especially after he yelled that she’d always hated Lucky and had probably lost him “accidentally on purpose.” It just wasn’t fair that the mother was the crux of the emotional well-being of the entire family. Sometimes Thelma felt as if she’d been buried alive. But, she renewed her efforts to get the word out and she upped the reward for the safe return of Lucky.

The email came from RedChief@gmail.com:

—How bad you want your dog back?

Thelma answered right away.

—What’s up with the Red Chief? I hope you’re not being disrespectful to Native Americans. I don’t watch the Tigers play Cleveland because I cannot stand Cleveland’s offensive mascot.

She only had to wait a few minutes. Red Chief was sitting at his computer somewhere.

—Like I said, lady, you want your dog back or not?

—How did you know I was a lady? This isn’t my personal email.

Thelma didn’t hear from RedChief@gmail.com again. Then she received an email from PrettyinPunk@gmail.com.

—We have your disgusting dog. Put 1,000$ in a paper sack and text me when you are in your van.

—I have my own grocery totes. I don’t do paper or plastic. This isn’t the twentieth century anymore.

Sometimes Pretty in Punk answered the emails right away and sometimes Thelma had to study her Russian while waiting.

—Fine. Use a grocery tote.

—The reward is 100$ not 1,000$. And I need proof Lucky is still alive.

—1,000$ or no dog. I have student loans to pay.

—What did you get your degree in? You sound unemployed. I just started college for the first time in my life. Did I tell you my son joined the Army? I don’t want a degree in anything that doesn’t immediately translate into a job.

—Steer clear of any major that starts with Medieval then. Sorry about your son.

—Thank you! I’m sorry also, but nobody seems to get that. It’s always, “You should be so proud” blah blah blah. But, I wanted so much more for him. Plus I miss him. It’s like driving into the rising sun of early spring without sunglasses.

—My mother died when I was twelve.

—OMG! I’m so sorry.

And then Thelma didn’t get another email.

She tossed and turned that night, afraid she’d wake Larry. Then he’d want to know what was wrong and she’d have to tell him Lucky was dognapped (though she wanted to tell him since he blamed her) and then he’d be calling the Oakland County Sheriff. She wanted to keep the police out of it. Anytime anyone can keep the police out of it they ought to, she thought, especially since you could get shot just for being a certain color. You didn’t have to have a weapon or be a serial killer or have committed a violent crime; no, you just had to come into contact with a police officer and maybe, like, run away from them. Thelma rolled out of bed and quietly made her way to her craft room.

Dear Lawrence,

Lucky was dognapped. It wasn’t my fault, after all. I am in the midst of intense negotiations to secure his release for the least possible amount of money. I’ve always been frugal, as you know.

I wish I could call you.

In my Department of Homeland Security class the instructor wants us to believe that the continuing erosion of our civil liberties is the reason our country has not experienced another attack like the one on 9-11.

Our ancestors who fought in the American Revolution are going to rise up from their graves and haunt us in perpetuity if we continue to avoid facing the fact that our leaders failed us that day and it had nothing to do with enjoying too many civil liberties. The whole thing still stinks to high heaven, like Lucky.

Not that I’m a conspiracy theorist, Lawrence. But still, a B-25 Mitchell bomber crashed into the Empire State Building in 1945 and all its fuel burned and guess what? The building is still standing.

How’s the Complex?

Love Always,

Mom

 

The next day, Thelma sent an email to PrettyinPunk@gmail.com.

—Here’s my cell number in case you want to talk.

Not long after, Thelma got a hang up call from an unidentified caller. She raced to her computer.

—Did you just try to call? It’s okay if you did.

Again, sometimes the emails were answered quickly and sometimes she had to study her Russian.

—Don’t you want your dog back? You never ask about him.

—He’s not my dog, really. He’s my husband Larry’s.

—The downstairs tenants called the landlord because he barks all the time.

—Oh no! What are you going to do? You might have to move!

—WTF!

—I have to go. Bye.

Thelma got off the Internet. Even though it was only one in the afternoon, she poured herself a glass of Chardonnay. Everything in her life felt different now. Instead of feeling shackled, she felt like she was slipping out of dried-up old skin, slowly but surely, and soon the old Thelma would be a discarded pile in the corner of the living room. A relic of the past: The Thelma who came in last while everyone else got what they needed, while everyone else became who they needed to be while she cleaned and cooked and care-taked and existed in a domestic fog. She hadn’t felt this alive in twenty years.

The next evening PrettyinPunk@gmail com wrote her:

—100$ would work for me.

—100$ ?????????

—For the dog.

That is a lot of money for a sick Chihuahua. He hasn’t been on his meds for weeks!

—You said the reward was 100$!

—Gotta go! I have to see what my husband and daughter are fighting about. Bye. (:

When Thelma walked into the kitchen, her husband and daughter stopped fighting, turned toward her, and asked practically simultaneously, “Any news on Lucky?” Not: How are you, Thelma/Mom? How are your classes going? How was your day? No. She was the last planet in their solar systems—Pluto the used-to-be-a-planet but is no longer a planet. Always the distant rock.

“No,” said Thelma and they both pulled their heads back like shocked chickens.

“Bite our heads off ‘bout it!” said Eunice.

***

Dear Lawrence,

Negotiations are not going well with the orphaned dognapper. I will continue trying, but am not hopeful in securing a positive outcome. I’m holding off on telling your father and Neecy until I know for sure one way or the other. Talk to you soon! Tell the Complex I said Hello.

Love you,

Mom

***

“Hello?” Thelma answered her cell.

“Hi. This is Amber. I … uh … is this Lucky’s mom?”

“Yes, it is. What can I do for you? I took the Craigslist ad down.”

“I know. I … uh … I’m the one that’s been emailing you. About Lucky.”

“Oh,” said Thelma, her heart sinking. “How are you today?”

“I think Lucky should go home.” In the background, Thelma could hear the dog yipping and yapping and Amber trying to get him to shush up. “It’s okay about the money. I don’t need the money that bad.”

“But he must be such a mess!”

“I can prove to you that he’s all better. Incoming.” Amber ended the call.

Twenty minutes later, Thelma got a video of Lucky growling and baring his fangs then biting a multi-ringed hand with bandaged delicate fingers and pink-painted fingernails that held onto his studded collar so that he’d be in the video. There was soft crying for three seconds. Amber turned the camera on herself. Thelma was very surprised to see her and watched as Amber wiped her face with a Kleenex. Amber’s short dark hair was parted on the side and the bleached-blond long bangs lay flat against her forehead, just over her left eye. She had a nose ring and wide cheeks and a small mouth dabbed with cherry red lipstick. Her eyes were red as if she’d not only just been crying but had been crying earlier, before the call.

“He looks good, doesn’t he?” Amber said to the camera before she turned it on Lucky again for a few seconds.

Lucky’s skin had a few patches but not like before and the patches that were there seemed dry, as if they were healing. Plus his fur had grown out. He’d always been so furless before.

Thelma and Amber texted.

—How did that happen?

—I don’t know. It just started clearing up.

—Do you feed him something special?

—Just regular dog food.

—Like holistic, grain-free, buffalo meat only?

—No, like dog chow. Comes in a huge bag for 5 bucks. I told you already I’m broke.

—Did you use the wipes?

—What wipes?

—The ones in his diaper bag.

—Not really. Too much of a hassle. He likes popcorn. But he won’t watch Netflix with me.

—Dogs can’t have popcorn! Or grapes. Or chocolate.

—Well, he likes it. Popcorn, that is. I know about the grapes and chocolate. He likes lying in the sun, too.

—In his special sun-blocking suit? Under his umbrella?

—Oh, I thought that was a dress-up outfit. No, just in the sun like a real dog. I didn’t take the umbrella, just the dog and the bag. I’m sorry I said he was disgusting before. He’s not really.

And then the texts from Amber stopped.

***

“Lucky was dognapped! I can’t frickin’ believe it. Who would want him? Ha!” Was the first thing Scooter said in the long-awaited-for second call. The three at home were sitting around the breakfast table hunched over the cell phone, their shoulders touching and jostling to be closest.

“What?” Larry looked at Thelma.

As did Neecy.

“That’s what Mom said in her letter. Right, Mom?”

“You weren’t supposed to tell your father just yet, Scooter. I’m still in negotiations,” she said.

“Negotiations? With a dognapper? What do they want? Why didn’t you tell me? We should call the police!” said Larry.

“Oh my God, Larry. Don’t get your panties in a bunch. Lucky’s fine.”

“How do you know?” her family asked.

“Amber sent me a video.”

“You have a video and didn’t tell us?” Neecy said.

A pang pinged in Thelma’s heart from the look on her daughter’s face.

“Who’s Amber?” she asked.

Thelma sighed. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you guys. But, he looks good. His skin is all better. He has fur again. Amber’s taking care of him, exceptionally well I might add.”

“It’s because you’re studying Russian isn’t it?” asked Larry. “You’re studying Russian and Homeland Security whatever and you’re changing. You used to be happy at home, Thelma, and now look at you. I don’t even know what you do all day anymore.” Larry stood up so fast his gut bumped the table causing a minor earthquake then he went charging out the front door. After a few seconds, his truck door slammed and the engine revved.

“I have to go, Mom,” said Lawrence. “You better get Lucky back.”

“Yeah, Mom. Lucky’s our dog. I don’t know how you can just go and give him to some chic named Amber,” said Neecy.

“He was dognapped, I didn’t give him away! And I didn’t lose him either. And he’s not even sick anymore. Amber healed him.”

“Gotta go,” said Scooter.

“Love you, Lawrence.”

“Love you too. Don’t forget to write me.” As if Thelma could forget.

“I can’t believe you did this,” Neecy said then stood up, her bedazzled eyes glimmering in tears. “You better get him back, Mom. Or, I’ll … I’ll never—”

“What?”

“Speak to you ever again.” She stormed off.

The way Neecy said that, Thelma knew her daughter meant what she said. They were ganging up on her! She was nothing but a maid. There to serve their every command. “Screw that,” Thelma said aloud, and she too, stood up and stormed out.

***

Why did Thelma have to get Lucky back just to make her family happy? Lucky was mean to Thelma, just like he was mean to Amber. Thelma had little thin strips of scars all over her fingers and it wasn’t because she made wreaths, as Larry always exclaimed when she’d shown him. What about what Thelma wanted? What about what made Thelma happy? Not taking care of that stinkin’ dog, that’s what made her happy!

 

Dearest Scooter,

I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. Isn’t that funny? Because I’ve been grown up for thirty years. I did very much like being your mother. Remember when we used to visit the bats at Cranbrook? Did you know a mother bat will do just about whatever it takes to return to her pup if, for instance, someone has sealed the entrance to the colony? She will work and work her way back into wherever the colony is to be reunited with her pup. Someday, you will understand this and why I’m so angry at the Complex.

Love you,

Mom

 

That night, Thelma had a dream in which she was a little brown bat and her two pups were in the attic of her Nana’s old farmhouse and the bat busters had sealed off the hole where she flew in and out to hunt mosquitoes. She kept smashing her funny bat nose against the house trying to find a new way in until she collapsed from exhaustion and fell. Her Nana found her on the porch, picked her up by a wing, and while Thelma dangled there, told her to stop foolin’ around with the Russians.

***

“Larry, you can’t refuse to speak to me for the rest of our lives. Especially, since you can never remember where you put anything,” Thelma said, pouring herself a cup of coffee.

He snorted and turned his face away, standing over his bacon sizzling in the pan with a fork in his hand. “Don’t you need to study Russian or something? Next thing, you’ll be moving to Moscow.”

“I’m not moving to Moscow.” She was emptying the dishwasher. “But I’m going to change my life, Larry, whether you like it or not.”

“Because you don’t like the life you have now? Huh? Is that it?”

“Because it needs to change. Scooter’s gone. Eunice is leaving soon. I’m sick of making wreaths. I want to be able to say that I have a college education. Is that so bad? Huh? Is it?” And she mocked the baby face he put on when he asked stupid questions.

“What’s bad, Thelma, is lying to me about Lucky. I would never have done that to you.”

Larry was right about that. But she was still irritated, so she rolled her eyes, drank down the last of her coffee, slammed the mug on the counter, grabbed her backpack and left for class.

***

Thelma always found herself crying in the van. She never wanted to cry in front of the children and Nana had taught her proper stoicism. She cried so often in the van that she was good at it and didn’t have to pull over. She hadn’t remembered to re-stock the travel packs of Kleenex, so she wiped her nose with antiseptic towelettes from out of the glovebox. They smelled of 1974.

In 1974, her mother had called her in from after-supper dodgeball with the kids on her block to watch Richard Nixon resign on the color television. Her mother explained how the President had wanted to become president again so badly, he’d resorted to theft and deception. The spring before, Thelma and her family had toured the White House. Thelma looked everywhere for President Nixon: down every hall, in every doorway, around every corner. What she wanted most of all was to meet President Nixon. She wrote him a letter and asked him why he hadn’t been home that day. He wrote her back, much to her parent’s surprise, and was very sorry to have missed Thelma. Thelma loved President Nixon. She was deeply troubled that he’d decided to be so bad.

She thought about how Watergate had changed her perception of those in power and how it affected her to this day. She didn’t trust a single one of them. And even though she loved President Obama, she didn’t really trust him, either. She didn’t trust the bankers, the lawyers, the cops. But it was different for her children.

Lawrence was four years old when the planes crashed into the buildings. Thelma was getting him ready to go to Montessori preschool and she had the television on, for some reason that she regretted later. Eunice was in her highchair, trying to pick up Cheerios. She never let the children watch the news. Not that the news was on, but the Today show was. Nana had always watched the Today Show in the morning. Lawrence and Thelma watched the second plane crash into the World Trade Center and the buildings collapse. Thelma cried out and rushed to call Larry on the phone. They stayed home that day and the next day from preschool. Thelma was very distracted and distraught and Lawrence had done his best to comfort her. He whispered “Sssshhh,” and smoothed away the tears on her cheek with his small soft hand. But for months if planes went overhead while Lawrence was outside playing, he’d run inside and hide under the dining table.

And Thelma the pacifist had been very angry. She supported the troops. She wished she could help protect America. She put a flag on her car and a flag picture on her front door and she made a lot of red, white and blue wreaths. And when they had conversations about 9-11 when Lawrence was older and that maybe the official version wasn’t the whole truth, that didn’t matter to him. What mattered was making sure it never happened again.

Of course, Lawrence joined the Army.

And what had Thelma done to act upon her convictions? Nothing. She complained about Larry making her take care of Lucky, she complained about the US House of Representatives keeping her country in a grid-lock, she complained about the military-industrial complex swallowing up her son, she complained about the erosion of civil liberties but she did nothing about it. Lawrence was living his life based upon his convictions, his beliefs, what was important to him. She was so proud of her son at that moment that it traveled throughout her and a shitty grin spread upon her face.

***

Thelma sat in her Department of Homeland Security class, jiggling her left knee and bouncing her pencil tip against her fold-over mini-desktop. It was like she needed to get up and go. Go and do this and go and do that, start making things happen.

The old professor was trying to justify racial profiling. She nudged the young woman next to her and pointed at the instructor and whispered, “You say something. You’re the future.” The young woman shirked away.

Thelma knew a different America, one her children’s generation had a right to know also. It seemed sometimes as if America had gone to New Zealand to be an ex-pat—her red, white and blue ribbons trailing behind her through the mud. She wanted to yell at her, “Wait. Wait for us!”

Thelma stood up, trembling, and made her way down the auditorium stairs. She stopped at the door, turned, and faced the old professor. He’d stopped speaking and stared at her. He looked used-up and worn out, like a filthy rug. She felt sorry for him. He willingly gave up all that made America great for a false peace of mind, he bent over for the establishment, he forgot that America was destined to always move forward.

Her mother had called her in from hide-n-seek to watch the astronauts land on the moon and Thelma felt that brilliant. Ready to face the unknown. Ready to take one small step.

She walked out of class and went home.

***

“Larry,” Thelma called his cell, “we need to talk.”

“About what?”

“Me.”

“You’re leaving me, aren’t you?”

“This isn’t about you. You can’t make everything about you.”

“What is it about then?”

“My life has been about either taking care of you or taking care of the kids or taking care of your dog. It needs to be about me now and what I want to do.”

Larry didn’t answer.

“Hello, hello, can you hear me?”

“Yes, Thelma, I can hear you.”

“Good that settles it then.”

“I guess.”

“Yes, Larry, that’s the deal. Take it or leave it.”

“I have to get back to work,” he said.

“I’m not stopping you.”

“Okay. Anything else?”

“Oh, yes,” she said.

“What?”

“If you want Lucky back you have to get him yourself.”

“Okay.” He sounded a bit like a child.

“See you later,” she said.

“Not moving to Moscow?”

“No, Larry, but I am going to get a bachelor’s degree.”

***

To PrettyinPunk@gmail.com:

Hi Amber- Did I tell you Larry rescued Lucky from a last chance event? Last chance means they’re gassed if not adopted that day. Lucky was left inside a rental house turned into a meth lab and no one found him for a couple of weeks. Toxic fumes had killed the meth heads. Lucky chewed through a plastic water bottle and drank the leaking dribbles. I think that’s where he learned to roll around in rotting carcasses and fecal matter. No one wanted Lucky because he stank. Except for Larry. I gave Larry your cell number. He’ll be calling you soon. Take care, Thelma.

***

Dear Lawrence,

I have good news! Lucky’s home and he’s all better. He doesn’t even smell anymore. I understand why you joined the Army now. We are all a product of the times we grew up in. I want you to know that I support you, that it’s important to be the person you need to be to live in this world and make sense of it, in your own way. I put an Army Mom sticker on the van. I wear my Army Mom sweatshirt to class. I know that you are going to be a good soldier and I’m proud of you.

Love you always,

Mom

 

 

 

BIO

Jennifer PorterJennifer Porter grew up in the Motor City as a GM Brat and rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast. Her work has appeared in over a dozen fabulous literary journals. She tortures fine writers with ruthless editing over at The Tishman Review while hiding in her imaginary conservatory.

 

 

 

Chris Vanjonack

After You

by Chris Vanjonack

 

 

When Jenny first approached me in the coffee shop, she was attracted to me primarily due to the eye patch strapped across my left eye that had been issued in the wake of a car accident. The accident left me scarred and averse to highways, pitched blood across my shirt and scratched an abrasion on my left cornea. It hurt like hell; the doctors couldn’t have prescribed enough painkillers. But the accident—which, by the way, killed the man that hit us and totaled my friend’s car—also left me emboldened, standing out like a beacon in a sea of nondescript, middle class, middle-income white boys, of which I am usually just another faceless member.

And so at Holly’s Coffee House that day—I think it was around noon, I think it was a Monday—Jenny stopped and sat at my table and asked, apropos of nothing, “So are you a punk now?” I’d seen her around before. She’d never seen me with the eye patch. Through the shearing pain in my left eye, the only response I could muster was, “Yes.” And that one word, one syllable, one second reply was how we became friends. Good friends. The kind of spontaneous friendship that threatened to eclipse all else in the shadow of its urgency. Even before it got physical we couldn’t get enough of each other—smoking weed in the other’s bedroom, going to all-ages matinee shows, and giving overly-dramatic readings of young adult novels at the local library to the chagrin of anxious librarians. We spent so much time sipping McFlurries and talking about who knows what at the McDonalds with the broken arches that soon it was hard to remember I had ever even known anybody else.

But of course I knew other people. Guys from around town. Girls from Denver. Before Jenny, I had been trying to get by with around ten friends, a tape recorder, a fake set of flowers and around a hundred or so in savings to get me through the trials and tribulations of laser-tag sessions, rewritten Blink-182 anthems, U-Haul trucks, movie nights, garden gnomes, weeklong strings of all night overnights, three ex-girlfriends, two unreturned security deposits and a book with kaleidoscope binding that took way too long to answer the question of what is good in life.

Looking back, I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised when it happened. It was after the going away party for Jenny’s ambitious, intelligent, going-somewhere younger sister. A fight almost broke out next to Shelter D with some punk kids talking shit and dropping N-bombs, but Jenny just laughed because she has always had the foresight to know when something would make for a good story. She didn’t cry during the party. She cried afterwards when it was just us and the bed sheets. Because her mom was dead and her sister was leaving, and so it was only going to be her and her sad dad for a while, but she had me, and we felt positive, and so she decided it should happen. And I always knew it would happen, but it was in the same way that I have always known that I will die one day. It was just that it had already happened (repeatedly, excessively, riotously) to so many people in my life that I had started to worry that by the time it did, I’d be too old to get it up. And so when she led me up the stairs to her bedroom, sat me on her bed, told me she’d never be happy, Christ, and started crying when I presented her with a wrapped copy of this god-awful YA book we’d been making fun of –the plot of which concerned a love triangle between a werewolf and a vampire and a horribly disfigured Chernobyl survivor—I was just as surprised as anyone that she took me.

By now, by the way, I feel as though I know everyone (or at least everyone who will matter), but still I try not to cap the friends list on Facebook at X number of people, because I know that each of them can hardly wait to tell me about how they are going off to get married and have babies and live out the passive-aggressive American dream of growing resentful of each other and never forgetting that one shitty thing the other one said during a Jets game twenty years ago, or shaking the lingering feeling that they should just say, “Fuck it,” and run away to Europe where they might still be miserable but at least the people have class.

Of course, we Americans have culture: I got this burning recollection of a cardboard cutout of Homer Simpson carried around by two kids on the last day of classes. The kids had cherry bombs too, and matches and fireworks, real sketch, doused in kerosene. I dunno, I dunno. They’re emotional fireworks? Poorly disguised euphemisms for ejaculation? We’ll get it on. We’ll take it off. I’ll get her off—off to turn her towards a urinal while her chest opens up and a bag of confetti comes shooting out, clearly on something, fucked up like her father at that incredibly sketchy birthday party they threw for her recently deceased mother where he and Jenny and her sister all put on party hats and cried watching home movies, and tried to pretend what a fun day they would be having if only she were still alive.

But yeah, yes—American culture. Second semester sophomore year, I went camping, joined a band, got really into The Pixies and made a list of all the things that Salinger never said about Cloverfield. I wish I had known Jenny then so that we could have talked about all the things that people never said about all the things we ever loved, and we could have held hands together, the Human Centipede being very disappointed that we were not discovering our sexualities through creatively phrased GOOGLE image searches with the safe-search functionality turned off and our underpants wrapped around our ankles.

I pop pop-culture like Claritin in the springtime and Vicodin after a car wreck. Video killed the radio star, and the Kardashians killed the hipster, AV Club, cooler-than-thou commentariat, who decreed in a post on the internet that in a post-modern, post-consumerism, post-apocalyptic cultural landscape we might as well all go marry gold diggers—old-timey pan handler types who trudge knee-deep in the Colorado River and boast a similar materialist ethos to the sexy cliches who die first in horror movies. There are Nazis at the center of the Earth, according to that SYFY channel original special that starred an improvisational actress from the Groundlings who I might have fallen in love with and jerked it to endlessly had it not been for Jenny. Her wallet was found by the kind cashier at the movie theater, and I am returning the interabang that accompanied the epiphany that I was in love with her in order to express my deepest surprise that anybody would ever let me get so close to them.

For so long it’s just been about this new thing and that new thing, but lately it’s become obvious that the largest congregation of all the coolest shit was only ever there to make me think I’m not so lonely. I am surrounded on all sides by the pulsating beat of punk-rock music, the enthusiastic blasts of Edgar Wright direction, and a hyped-up feeling that I know all the cool books to claim I’ve read, each of them written by beatnik, weirdos who enjoyed anal fingering. But through the sound of that silence that surrounds me, as I got so close to Jenny that night, I was not thinking about the screech of bagpipes and accordions at old fashioned funerals—even though, as my legs extended in a fit of ecstasy, I knocked over the framed photograph of her mother that she keeps on her bedside table—but rather about that moment just beforehand when she put her hand on my cheek and intertwined her limbs with my ventricles, enough caffeine coursing through my veins to make me really believe all of that grand romantic love shit that I watched in high concept romantic comedies that I said I only screened to be ironic. Her body was against mine and her skin was cold, I was hard, she was crying, and this shit was formative, because in that moment she seemed intimate and I felt infinite because there are perks to reading all these shitty young adult books.

 

 

BIO

Chris VanjonackChris Vanjonack is an English teacher living in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he helps run Slamogadro, a monthly poetry slam that is fast approaching its second anniversary. His fiction has appeared previously in New Haven Review and Buffalo Almanack.

Coyotes Don’t Litter

by Tera Joy Cole

 

 

“Let’s talk about the accident. Wasn’t that what brought you here in the first place?”

“No, it’s the litter.” I sigh while glancing around the office at all of the framed degrees hanging behind Dr. Howard.

But, maybe it had been the stretched-out cat, on the side of the road, covered in that snow. Trigger. It wasn’t the obvious kind of litter: white, crumpled fast food bags; forty-ounce mostly empty bottles of “Hurricane;” a busted chair.

We’ve been discussing a time, many years ago, when my dad and I were driving back home from my grandparent’s house. An afternoon lunch on their deck, overlooking the hillside and downtown Glendale, had been tension-filled, and I remembered being pissed that my sister had gotten out of coming along. After my dad downed three scotch-on-the-rocks at an alarming rate, I insisted on driving us back home. Behind the wheel of his Mercedes, I navigated the tight freeway pass by Dodgers Stadium.

My dad was leaning back in the leather passenger seat. When he let out an exasperated sigh, I knew he was about to impart some wisdom. Apparently, he was concerned about the guy I was dating and, although I hadn’t asked for his advice, he was going to launch into one of his speeches anyway.

“You can’t marry a poet. He won’t be able to take care of you.” My dad knew a lot about marriage; after all, he was on his third. And, since I was heading off to graduate school in Idaho, the last thing on my mind was finding a man to take care of me. I saw a dead cat on the side of the freeway, and as a means of changing the subject, I quoted one of our long standing jokes: “It’s only sleeping.”

“Well, how did this make you feel?”

I want to answer Dr. Howard’s question, but instead I close my eyes. All I can see are dead animals. My mind skips to a camping trip I took about ten years back. I was riding in the car with some friends on our way to Preston, Idaho. I counted fourteen dead deer on a fifteen mile stretch of highway. I also saw a bumper sticker that read: “Smoke a Pack a Day” with a picture of four wolves caught in a crosshair. At the time, I had no idea what it meant. Neither of these things seemed to bother anyone else but me. Dr. Howard wants to talk about the accident, but I am unable to put anything into words. He sends me home with a prescription for something that will help me sleep.

That night, instead of sleeping, I obsess over some album cover I may have once owned: a bubble gum-pink nightmare of the 1980s fading into a hazy Los Angeles sunset. Looping in the background, I keep hearing that girl’s mocking voice saying to one of my co-workers, “She’s certified loony bin crazy.” I think she is talking about me, but I can’t be sure. That same day, I heard a story about my friend’s dad who got cancer. His cancer was removed, and I all I can say is “what did they do with it?” My friend asks, “What?” And I answer, “The cancer.”

It’s not safe to drink the water. It’s not safe to breathe the air.

*****

On my way home from work, I count seventeen incidences of litter: a broken beer bottle, a dirty diaper, a discarded car seat (which I actually scanned, half-way hoping that a baby might still be latched inside), a discarded sweatshirt, etc. I don’t want to count like this, so I stop by the grocery store and purchase a little red spiral-bound notebook. I will use this to catalogue the litter. Dr. Howard will see this as progress. After all, he’s always trying to get me to write things down.

I finally sleep for a few hours, but when I awake the next morning, I can’t stop thinking of a story someone once told me about the yearly rabbit hunts which were held in the rural Idaho town where he was raised. He described how as a young boy, five or so, he’d been given a baseball bat and was told to walk through the fields as the rabbits were being flushed out. He was supposed to whack as many of these as he could over the head. I guess each person kept track of how many rabbits they’d whacked. Most kills=big prize.

This story haunts me the next day and makes it nearly impossible for me to concentrate on work. All I have to do is answer a phone and then transfer the call to the right attorney. However, images of crushed in rabbit skulls appear before my eyes each time one of the red lights blinks. The voices on the phone make no sense to me. I keep sending the wrong call to the wrong attorney. Eventually, they send me home for the day.

Home is no better. I keep searching for my copy of Watership Down. I am convinced that I have it somewhere, so I tear through boxes in the closet. After about four hours of searching, it dawns on me that I’ve never even read it. My mother took me to see the movie when I was about seven years old. I cried so hard and so loudly that she had to remove me from the theatre before the movie ended. I remember her embarrassment and feel ashamed. I get online and order a copy. I will finally find out what happened to those rabbits that were driven out of their homes by greedy farmers who want to plow the land.

By the time I go see Dr. Howard the following Tuesday, the little red notebook is almost full. I am proud of my record keeping.

“So, last week, we were discussing your father and the accident.”

Hadn’t we been talking about the sunsets in Los Angeles and the unsafe air and drinking water? In what strikes me as a mocking tone, he says: “You were last telling me about a car ride on the freeways in Los Angeles. You’d been leaving your grandparent’s house. Your father was not a huge fan of you marrying a poet. I think this is worth further exploration.”

I hand Dr. Howard the red notebook. “What’s this?” He asks, leafing through it. His forehead wrinkles as he makes a note in my chart.

“I was sure you’d like this.” I never cry in therapy. I do, however, grab the throw pillow on the couch next to me and dig my nails into it. I imagine that it’s Dr. Howard’s face I am digging into. My fingertips get closer and closer to his eyes. I can almost see myself gouging out his eyeballs. He sees me grabbing the pillow and feels good about therapeutic tactics. He learned this somewhere in college, at some point in a clinical, grab the pillow and tear at it, scream into it if you must.

“I am not sure how this notebook is going to help you.” He switches tactics, “I mean, how do you see this as being helpful?”

When I don’t respond, he tries again, “Why don’t we talk about what brought you here in the first place? The accident?

“It’s the litter.” I respond again, but this time when I close my eyes I can see the twisted metal and smell the burning rubber and spilled gasoline. I see myself driving my Dad and sister home from somewhere near downtown. I’d taken my eyes off the road for just a minute when I saw the spilt box of discarded kittens. I needed to know if they had survived being thrown from a vehicle at high speeds. That’s all it took.

*****

In my possession are a collection of pictures in which I stand on the fringe of the group. These are my families. Sometimes when I try to make sense of my family dynamics to people they joke, “Maybe we should draw a family tree.” However, trees require roots. Some trees, such as the Giant Sequoias in California, have such a shallow root system that they are often vulnerable to all kinds of destruction: wind, severe weather, fires. Sometimes, huge tunnels are built into these trees big enough to fit a moving car. The ones that still remain are over two hundred feet tall and have survived thousands of years of storms, fires, and humans. I want to be like that.

*****

Today, Dr. Howard wants to talk about my sister. Apparently he’s found something in his notes that interests him. Instead, I tell him about an insignificant dream I had the night before. The funny thing is, I don’t dream about my sister. I close my eyes and try to recall a single dream with her. My mind is blank.

As soon as I get home from my appointment with Dr. Howard, I give into my impulse to grab my notebook and start cataloguing the stuff in my closet: a cardboard box of wrapping paper and gift bags, a wooden crate wine box that now contains the pictures from some wedding, a hacky-sack like bag that holds crystals and gem rocks, a book cover from Curious George, a large number of paper clips and thumb tacks, and the love verses from the unmarriable poet. I also come across the wrinkled newspaper article about the accident: “Local Man and Daughter Killed in Tragic Wreck.” For a second, I consider cataloguing these items separately into “useful” and “non-useful,” but I am unsure where to place the article.

As I am climbing into bed, I find what appears to be a curled up spider ready for spooning. I think about calling someone, but there’s no one to call. I gather up enough courage to poke at it with an unraveled metal coat hanger. It moves. I run from the room and end up sleeping on the dining room table because I figure it is the least insect friendly of all my furniture. When I awake the next morning, I realize that I’ve slept through the whole night, and I feel great. For the first time, since the accident, my back isn’t hurting me and I feel safer sleeping above it all. I head straight towards my bedroom determined to confront the creature. In the unreal light of early morning, I discover that the enigma is only a piece of rolled up string-a castoff from an Old Navy T-shirt. The “spider” was then catalogued as “useful.”

*****

Dr. Howard sips on a cup of coffee and twirls his pencil between his thumb and pointer finger. He seems to be waiting for me to say something, but I just stare at him. Finally, he can’t stand the silence, “Did you and your sister get along well?”

“I hated her.” I say as my head presses against the scratchy wool of the pillows that Dr. Howard’s wife probably made for him. I used to imagine her pulling on nude colored, run-resistant pantyhose in the mornings before she headed down to the kitchen to make him three fried eggs, a piece of half-burnt sourdough toast with marmalade and a cup of black coffee. I was later surprised to discover that she is also a doctor who works in the pediatrics unit at the hospital. I was mad at myself for my sexist vision of Dr. Howard’s better half.

Hate is a pretty strong word.

Before Dr. Howard can launch into any more questions about my dad or my sister, I tell him about my new sleeping arrangements, “I’ve been sleeping on the kitchen table for the past week.” Now this, this interests him.

He leans forward so far that his rear end is nearly slipping off his leather chair. “What? What’s this?” As if he hasn’t really heard me. “Wasn’t it uncomfortable?”

“It’s the best sleep I’ve had in months. I am thinking about sleeping there from now on.”

“Does this have something to do with the accident?”

Laughter escapes through my nose with a snorting sound, “No, it was because of the spider that wasn’t really a spider.”

He is perplexed now. “Spider?”

*****

Over the weekend, I set to work on the move, but it takes a lot of effort to turn the dining area into a bedroom. I am ill prepared for the difference in the elements of place that I encounter. In the dining room, I have an antique hutch that I acquired through some divorce. It was previously filled with my grandmother’s china, knick-knacks, and crystal stem wear. This all had to be moved up to the bedroom and placed in the dresser drawers.

Side note: the hutch works really well as a wardrobe. I use the drawers (reserved for silver which I don’t have) for socks, underwear, bras, etc. In the large bottom area, (reserved for crystal dishes, soup tureens, platters, etc. which I also don’t have) I place my neatly folded shirts, jeans, skirts and sweaters. I have to get a little more creative with the two upper cabinets that used to hold the glasses and knick-knacks. In this area, I place my shoes.

Then, all of the stuff from the dining room has to be moved to the bedroom. This is where the real challenge began. Although, the hutch could easily serve a dual function for dishes and clothes, the dresser was not as cooperative in its design for the china and glasses. In one drawer, I place six of my grandmother’s china cups. I use another drawer for the six plates, and in the last one, I put the remaining five bowls (one broke in the move). I end up having to place all of the crystal stemware on top of the dresser. If we ever have an earthquake, I’ll be screwed. But, this isn’t California.

In the middle of my move, I get a phone call from an old friend, and I let it go to voicemail. She leaves a message asking me to meet her at a bar near my neighborhood. Her voice sounds so artificial, and that is one of my new rules: avoid anything artificial. I’d spent a few hours the other night throwing away everything in the kitchen that had any artificial ingredients, but I had to Google so many of the ingredients because I didn’t know which ones were real or not, so eventually I ended up throwing away everything that came in a package or a box. It’s a little harder to throw away people, but I’d been forced to do it before.

At my last session with Dr. Howard he had given me a challenge to get out of the house more and possibly reconnect with people I used to know, so I figure this is my best chance. But, it has been so long since I’ve done anything social that I’m not even sure what to do. When I turn on the light in the bathroom, and stare into the mirror, I can literally see right through my image into the medicine cabinet. I see all of the products lined up in there, but no matter how hard I try I can’t see my face. This starts to concern me, and I consider calling Dr. Howard. He’ll probably answer, but he will be filled with resentment at being forced to come to my rescue on a weekend.

So instead I dig up an old photo album from college to remind myself of what I looked like when I’d been normal. If I hold the image in my mind for long enough, and meditate with enough intention, maybe my face will morph back into this image. But these photos were taken before the accident, so my meditation technique can not break the barrier.

I am late to the bar after all, so I have to make my way through a maze of smoke and drunk people. The music is loud and someone is horribly singing a karaoke version of Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” There’s still time to turn around and get the hell out before anyone notices me.

Diane and her date are sitting at a corner table off to the right of the stage. They see me just as I am about to turn around and walk out. With the jangling of a thousand arm bracelets, she waves me over.

“Hey you!” she exclaims too loudly over the sounds of “…show them what’s funky; show them what’s right. It doesn’t matter who spoke up right. Just beat it!”

She pats the seat between her and some guy I’ve never met before. He is kind of my type which is definitely not her type, at least not that I remember. He has dark, wavy hair which hangs just over his ears, dark eyes (I can’t tell what color), and he is wearing a beat up Joy Division T-shirt. Justin.

“Grab a drink, or get a pitcher to share!” Diane shouts at me.

Getting to the bar is like walking the gauntlet. I have to push past half-drunk girls standing in the aisle yelling over each other, and then maneuver around a fat guy who is sitting in a barstool two sizes too small for him. “Excuse me,” I half shout although no one seems to hear me. I imagine myself as thin as a sheet of tin foil and then feel as if I have been crumpled into a ball. The guy behind the bar is shirtless and both his nipples are pierced. He won’t even look my way as he mumbles, “What do you want?”

I want to be home. I want to be home arranging my collections. “Two pitchers of Killian’s and three glasses, please.” The “please” sounds superfluous after his rude greeting and his complete inability to make eye contact. As he slams down the two pitchers, beer froths over the sides, and he says “Eighteen bucks.” I handed him a twenty.

The walk back to the table is easier because most of the people who had been blocking the aisle are now on the dance floor, shaking it to some Lady Gaga song. Justin and Diane are engaged in a kiss as I approach the table. I have to stand there for several seconds before they realize there is another human being in the room.

“Oh, sorry,” Diane apologizes, “we get so carried away sometimes. But don’t worry, Justin’s buddy Nate should be here any minute.” Great a double date with Nate. It isn’t even funny.

Justin is in the middle of filling up our beer glasses when I feel his leg brush against mine. It has been way too long. Maybe this guy Nate will be cute and half-way intelligent. But, then I remember my place. There’s no way I can take anyone back there. How can I possibly explain all of the bedroom stuff occupying the dining room area?

I don’t have to worry after all. Nate is sporting a “Smoke a Pack a Day” T-shirt. He is loud and obnoxious, too. He does, however, buy the next few rounds of beers and shots. I get drunk pretty quickly because I am not really in partying shape, and before I know it I am on the dance floor sandwiched between Justin and Nate. Nate keeps grabbing at me and trying to kiss me. I’ve been out of this game so long that I’ve forgotten the rules. Am I supposed to just let him grope me?

I have no clue where Diane had gone off to, and a vague feeling of concern quickly passes through me. Apparently, there’s nothing to worry about. I look over towards our table in time to see her taking body shots off some girl. At least, I am pretty sure it is a girl. We are all swept up in the lights and the bass, grinding against one another, and then the next thing I know we are back up at the bar. The bartender seems much friendlier now, and he has a shirt on. Maybe it’s a different guy. I can’t tell. Nate orders copper camels-a shot I’ve had a few times before. I am not really fond of it. He keeps calling it a bitch shot. I’m not sure who the bitch is supposed to be. I catch a blurry glance at the digital clock above the cash register, and it looks as if it reads 1:32. This sets off a panic in my mind. There is no way I can drive home, and it is getting pretty late to call a cab.

I manage to slur out the words, “I gotta go….”

“What’s your rush,” answers Nate, grabbing my arm, “the bar doesn’t close for another twenty minutes. Justin will give you a ride home. He’s hasn’t had that much to drink.” I am not too convinced, but I also lack the energy to fight it. I head towards the table to see about Diane. She’s out on the dance floor again and appears to be in no hurry to go home.

“Diane!” I call out. “Let’s go!” The room starts to spin, and I see Justin heading towards me with a blaster. Drink up…

I awake to my head bumping against a cold window in the backseat of someone’s car. The floor is littered with trash of all sorts: crushed beer cans, empty Rockstar cans, and food wrappers from any number of fast food places. I’m sitting on something hard. I reach under my butt and feel a wrench of some sort. Through a drunken blur, I see Diane next to me, messing around on her phone. “Ha, ha! That’s a great picture of you.” Please, not Facebook!

Nate is driving the car. I guess he’s the most sober of all of us. Or the most drunk. “Where are we going?” I ask cautiously. Something has happened between the time we left the bar and the time I woke up amongst the garbage. I just can’t remember what. I’d been dreaming of the dirty cement waterways that connect the Los Angeles River to the ocean. Someone had painted colorful cartoon pictures of cats on the giant metal drain covers. Filthy water flowed through their wrenched-open mouth holes.

“We’re hunting coyotes! Don’t you remember? It was your idea.” Nate boomed from the front seat. I try to protest because it really doesn’t sound like an idea that I would come up with, but something tells me to keep my mouth shut. If only I’d stayed home where I would be safe from all of this consumption and rejection.

Diane quickly comes to my defense with a challenge to Nate, “Ahhh…no one said anything about shooting coyotes. You guys were bragging about guns, and she suggested we go out and shoot at cans.” I don’t remember any of this.

I pull my phone out of my purse, but it’s dead. “What time is it?” I ask Diane.

“3:17.”

The darkness outside of my window is impossible to penetrate. Nate takes a sharp left and suddenly we are traveling at high speeds down a very bumpy, dirt road. “Those little fuckers always hang around my uncle’s farm. We’ll find some out here.”

Justin cries out, “Slow down, dude! You’re going to get us all killed.”

“Don’t be such a puss!”

The car swerves into another left turn and then Nate slams on the brakes. We nearly run into a barbed wire fence, and I see clouds of dust through the high beams. Nate kills the engine and gets out of the car. I hear him open the trunk and begin rummaging for something. I am guessing the trunk is filled with more garbage. I think about getting out of the vehicle and running, but I have no clue where we were.

“Son of a bitch!” Nate yells out as he slams the trunk shut.

Diane opens up her door and slurs, “Wassa matter, Nate?”

“Just about busted my goddamn knuckle on a tire iron is all.”

By now, we are all out of the car. Justin leans against the front end and Diane is trying to mount the hood of the car like she’s eighteen, but she’s not, and I’m not either. We’re too far past the point of hiking up skirts. I can see a dark bruise on Diane’s left thigh. “C’mon, guys. Let’s go.” I protest. “Some of us need to get some sleep.” No one is listening. Justin and Diane are back to making out again, and I work to steady myself against the car. Then, I hear a coyote howl.

Nate is barely able to control his enthusiasm, “I told you those bastards were out here. They’re all over this farm land. When I was a kid my uncle used to take me out here in the summer to shoot the little shits. In a good night, we might get five or six of them.”

I am feeling a little sick to my stomach. I try to run an inventory in my head of all the drinks and shots I’ve had, but I lose count. I wish that I’d written them down in my notebook. Nate walks out across the field; Diane and Justin follow. The moon is almost full, so once my eyes adjust to the darkness I can just barely make out their shapes. What choice do I have but to follow? I’m about 50 yards behind them when I hear the sound of a gun and then a yelp. “Hey, I got one!” Nate calls out excitedly.

Diane and Justin run over to see the damage. I can’t bring myself not to look. The little brownish colored coyote looks more like someone’s pet dog than a wild animal. The tongue hangs out of the mouth and is covered in blood and gravel. It’s still alive. “You gotta kill it…” whispers Justin, “You just can’t let it suffer.”

“Oh, look who all of a sudden works for PETA. Diane’s made you soft, huh?”

“Yeah,” Diane chimes in, “It’s not right. You can’t just let it lay there in pain.”

“If you assholes are so hooked on this thing dying, you shoot it.”

Diane leans in closer to Justin and loops her arm through his. None of them are making any moves towards putting this creature out of its misery. It’s only sleeping.

“How ‘bout you, sweetie? After all, this was your idea to begin with.” Nate is looking right at me and offering me the gun. He is practically forcing it into my right hand.

The handle is warm, and I feel my whole palm close tightly around it. Suddenly, I am ten years old again, at a family reunion in Montana. We’d spent a week there at a one of those dude ranches that was popular in the early 80s. At first, I’d been resistant, but after a few days, I was shooting guns with the rest of my cousins. We started out shooting beer cans, but then someone got the bright idea to shoot feral cats. I never really took pleasure in that game, but my sister sure had seemed to enjoy it. By the end of the week she’d tallied up how many cats she’d shot: eight. She was proud.

In this moment, the gun feels right in my hand. My body is electrified. Blurred images of trash, bloodied road kill, filthy water, smog stained skies, and twisted metal fill my mind. I turn the gun towards Nate and aim at his chest.

“Coyotes don’t litter,” my words echo through the blast of the gun.

 

 

BIO

Tera Joy Cole is the author of the short story,Tera Joy Cole “Where Things Are Made” which was published by in Blunderbuss Magazine (April 2015). Additionally, her article “Occupy,” which chronicled her visit to Zuccotti Park, New York City, during the Occupy Wall Street Movement, appeared in the magazine The Bannock Alternative (December 2011). She holds an M.A. degree in English and teaches composition and literature at Idaho State University.

 

 

 

 

Midnight Mass

by Thomas Elson

 

It was on December 28, three days after Christmas, and unbeknownst to David while he rushed through the hospital garage at 5:15 in the morning, his wife, Nicole, had called him at home. In the days before cell phones and voice mail, their recording machine took her message. When he returned home the next day, he would hear his wife’s voice, “Where are you?”

He heard other messages, each from a different person, but each the same, “David, no need to call back. Just wondering how Nicole is?” Repeated multiple times on that single tape. Only one asked, “How are you?”

#

Three days earlier, during the best part of his week in the best part of their house, David sat at the table next to the bay window – in an area so deep it created another room between the kitchen and family room.

Early in their marriage, he and Nicole had crammed the table and four chairs into their small Chevy. The tabletop, with its legs detached, fit in the trunk; they stuffed two of the chairs in the back seat. The other two chairs Nicole stacked on the passenger’s side of the front seat on David’s lap – the backs of the chairs dangled onto the floor.

 

Near midnight that Christmas Eve, they had driven over icy roads and squinted against the glare of the oncoming headlights, left their warm car and walked through the dark night toward the vestibule of the church, then waited outside as others blocked the front doors and stomped snow from their feet. David and Nicole kept their heavy coats on until their upper bodies overheated even though their feet remained frigid.

Inside the church, the multitude of candles complimented the hanging electric lights designed to echo the stalactite glow of beeswax candle chandeliers in medieval churches. Mid-way through the services, David heard the military sounds of tramping as parishioners rose from their pews, genuflected, stood erect, and formed near-perfect communion lines with a precision learned in the first grade from nuns well-trained to channel unfocused youth into disciplined adults.

David recalled how he had stood ramrod straight during the services that night – proud of how he felt in his bespoke 42-long diplomat striped suit, proud that people guessed his age twenty years younger that it was; proud of his wife – beautiful in her one-of-a-kind dress; proud that people would believe him if he said Nicole was twenty-two years younger– her enthusiasm and laughter supplied all the facts they needed; proud that he continued to feel the desire to hug her in public, proud that he had survived three cancer scares thanks to skillful surgeons, and relieved that Nicole had not fainted during this three-and-one-half hour service.

Before their Christmas lunch later that day, David completed his ritual. He touched and kissed the inscription, “Forever”, on his mother’s marble urn, which he referred to as a vase – because life grows from vases. He whispered a few words, then returned the urn to the walnut bookcase his mother had given him on his seventeenth birthday. Afterward, David stayed close to Nicole – alone with hours of uninterrupted time. Tomorrow the world would begin again.

 

Late on the morning of December 26th, while he and Nicole sat in Dr. Keegan’s waiting room, it struck David that these rooms were all the same – no matter where located, or how festively decorated. No one wanted to be there, but all were eager to hear the test results, and receive relief. His emotions hung under a compound cloud of fearful anger and fearful stoicism. He knew that they waited alone no matter how many others tried to comfort them. They talked with forced smiles, in turns silent; then, with a start, they would look for a nurse, or doctor, someone to enter, see them, and tell them something hopeful.

Behind the receptionist’s glass curtain, the medical staff’s movements ranged from languid to hyperactive and separated them from the patients. David hugged Nicole’s hips, then held her hand as they waited. She cupped his hand within hers, then squeezed. The same movement she did three years ago when David was diagnosed.

#

On a July afternoon, three years earlier, as David and Nicole arrived at the medical clinic’s parking lot, Nicole saw yet another someone on yet another corner with yet another hand-written cardboard sign. She reached into a dedicated compartment of her purse to rifle out yet another five-dollar bill.

David sat in the exam chair in the ophthalmologist’s office that July morning for a routine visit. He felt the smooth plastic forehead rest of the retinoscopy machine – the alcohol rub still cold against it. He placed his chin in the alcohol coldness of the lower bar, then felt a sting as the intense light hit the surface of his left eye.

David heard the ophthalmologist gasp, “Oh God.” David felt the machine move to his left as the doctor’s eyes met his, “You have a rare form of-” Then the doctor said the one word that freezes families; makes them unable to move, think or speak. “I’ll have to call someone. Wait here.” He rushed into the office next to the exam room. In his panic, the doctor had left both doors open.

Within moments, from the next room, David heard, “Doctor Hollis, I have a patient here with a form of eye cancer I’m unfamiliar with. I don’t know how I should proceed.” There was silence followed by a few inaudible murmurs, then David heard, “Should I take a biopsy?” Of my eye? A biopsy? Now? Remove a portion of my eye? Then what?

“You have an appointment tomorrow at 3:30 with Dr. Hollis,” the ophthalmologist said.

The doctor walked out to the waiting room with David, and said, “I hope I see you soon. Good luck.” David felt as if he were heading for the arctic region with only a light jacket and a ham sandwich.

#

On that late December 26th morning, three years after David’s eye operation his bouts with chemotherapy, he waited with Nicole in the exam room. Their family practitioner, Dr. Keegan, a man who usually displayed a distinct Celtic sense of humor, entered with his head down. He landed mechanically on a round exam chair, clutched the papers in his hand as if they were fifty-pound weights, cast his eyes down, stuttered, coughed, then read without looking up, “The lab results came in, and you were diagnosed with-” Again David and Nicole heard the one word that freezes families.

Dr. Keegan finished, inhaled, coughed, wiped his face, then outlined the specialists he had arranged for them to see. Nicole remained motionless. David, four feet away from her, was rigid. That would haunt him later. He looked at his wife and felt his eyes pool.

 

In the afternoon of that same day, Nicole lay on the doctor’s exam table. The young and meticulous surgeon, lab report in hand, looked directly at her, “Here’s where the mammogram showed the growth.” David saw a mass as dark as midnight on the screen. Then, the surgeon drew interrelated circles with a permanent marker on Nicole’s upper body. After he detailed the hospital admissions process for the next day, he said, “I’ll leave the two of you alone for awhile to discuss the options,” then he left the exam room.

Nicole rose from the exam table, balanced herself , then lifted her eyes filled with the familiar look of determination toward David. “If I’m going to lose something, I’m going to get something out of it”. She opted for reconstructive surgery, including liposuction, to be performed immediately after the surgeon removed the mass.

 

Two days later, and the hospital admissions office was as bleak and airless as the hospital parking garage – despite elaborately wrapped, albeit empty, gift boxes, peppermint sticks, and toy soldiers.

Huddled in clothes too flimsy for winter, a rail-thin woman, her gaze frozen on the linoleum, sat near David and Nicole. He watched as the woman nodded “no” when an admissions nurse asked, “Do you have insurance?” “Is there any family in the area?” “Do you have a mailing address?” “Do you think you can walk?” “Do you have someone to call?”

David and Nicole were lucky. Both employed, both with insurance to cover all costs and co-pays, the admission officer ushered them into her office. Nicole was admitted by 7:15 p.m. Within minutes, a medical assistant escorted them to her private room.

Seated on the bed inside her hospital room, Nicole reached for school papers to grade, but her hand shook so much the papers slipped away. Gone was her laughter. Gone was her sense of humor. She reached for David. This time he reached back. They sat there, her unpacked overnight suitcase still at the side table.

 

That night, as David drove home alone and on autopilot, he turned right instead of left from the parking garage, and found himself lost four miles north of the hospital and across the street from the football stadium. He stopped the car, leaned his head against the steering wheel, and shook.

Three turns plus a driveway later, at a time unremembered, he arrived at their home eight miles south of the hospital. His call to Nicole was answered at the shift nurse’s desk, “She’s resting now – asleep. We gave her something mild.”

 

On the morning of her surgery, after David’s rush through the parking garage, he sat next to Nicole in the cramped prep room, amid the curtains, tubes, needles, and watched the surgeon apply his purple ink initials to Nicole’s surgical site. Afterwards Nicole received an unanticipated, but much welcomed, injection of liquid valium, David heard his wife exhale seventy-two hours of tension.

When she was rolled away, she waved at David with the abandon of a happy child. He returned her wave, watched the attendants turn her surgical bed toward the surgery hallway, and waved once more. David, short of breath with the sensation of liquid motion in the corners of his eyes, steadied himself against the wall.

Without notice, he was thrown back into another room of another hospital twenty-eight years earlier. His mother lay as rigid as a corpse, her eyes alternating between bitterness and panic. An anesthesiologist entered, and within seconds, her liquid valium was working. When they wheeled his mother to surgery, she shot David a carefree wave, her face looked as young as a schoolgirl, and said, “They’re taking me away.”

 

David fretted in the surgical waiting room for hours. A young doctor entered and every head in the waiting room turned toward him. “Dr. Hollis asked me to tell you that it may become a bit more complicated,” the doctor said as he placed his hand on David’s right shoulder, “He called in a second surgeon.”

Later that morning, Nicole’s first surgeon returned, looked around, recognized David, motioned him into the hallway.

They stood in the glass-walled hospital hallway filled with sunshine reflected from the newly waxed floors. David leaned against the telephone bank around the corner while the surgeon talked, “I completed my part, but we found a second mass.” The surgeon looked away for a moment; then continued, “This second one was not on the mammogram your wife had. My colleague will need to remove that mass along with a few lymph nodes for testing. It may be some time yet.” With a wet palm, he shook David’s hand and walked away.

 

Around six that evening, amid the piped-in Christmas music just above the din of the television, a second surgeon with near flawless bearing, walked through the waiting room doors. She looked at David, nodded to the hallway.

Once again, David was in the hallway by the phone bank. He leaned against the same phone bank that had supported him hours earlier. This time there was no sun through the windows. “We found two additional masses.” She rubbed her right hand against her spotless scrubs. “We removed them, but will have to wait on the results from the lymph nodes to see if it spread.”

The second surgeon continued to talk while a feeling swept over David that he was afraid to touch. Relief? Resignation? From that point on, he heard only white noise.

#

David sat at their table nestled in front of a bay window for the first time since Nicole’s surgery one year ago. Through the window, David was transfixed by the lush pasture protected by the parallel two-pronged barbed wire fence. In that room, he could see life forever; the endless land attached safely to the blue-gray sky.

He reached across the table for the telephone answering machine, listened to his saved messages. Once again, he heard his wife’s voice, “Where are you?” This time he felt her fear surge through the phone. Then he wiped wet spots from the table and his eyes.

As David began his ritual, he touched his mother’s urn, kissed the inscription, “Forever”, then whispered a few words.

He felt as if Nicole touched his hand. He reached for her, and, as he does almost daily, apologized for not moving toward her the day she received her diagnosis. Her response seemed comforting and understanding.

His ritual these days takes him a little longer – for now there are two urns.

 

 

BIO

Thomas ElsonThomas Elson lives in Northern California. He writes of lives that fall with no safety net to catch them. His short stories have appeared in Cacti Fur, Clackamas Literary Review, Conceit Magazine, Cybertoad, Dual Coast, FTB Press Anthology, Literary Commune, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, Perceptions Magazine, Potluck, and Walk Write Up.

 

 

 

 

Gin Fizz

by Eric Brittingham

 

 

When Alexander Quillen’s grandmother told him she expected him to get up first thing in the morning on the first Monday of his summer vacation to help her paint her backyard fence and three-car garage, he couldn’t believe she was serious. Alex had made other plans. Or more truthfully, he’d planned to have no plans. He’d spent the final weeks of the sixth grade imagining that his summer reward for high grades and hard work would be a hot and humid haze of irresponsible sameness, with no discernable distinction between any given weekday and a typical weekend. If planning were necessary, he would say he planned to sleep and eat and perhaps to read (but only comic books and newspaper funny pages) and perhaps to watch television (cartoons and old sit-coms). Of course, he should have known that his grandmother was quite serious and would have no sympathy for such unproductive indulgence. After all, even the self-discipline his mother exhibited during the school year to rise before dawn each weekday morning failed to earn her a weekend reprieve in the eyes of his grandmother, who instead despaired that “laying abed clear to eight or nine o’clock of a morning” revealed in her daughter a dreadful moral failing.

And he should have remembered that he’d promised long ago to help repaint the fence and garage that bisected his grandmother’s backyard. This was no minor chore. The fifty-foot-long fence extended from the neighbor’s property line to join the back of the open-bay garage, which was turned around backwards so the bays opened away from the house and toward the soybean field at the edge of the yard. The sun shone year-round on both the fence and the garage walls, and as a result they required repainting about every five years. It was a job that Alex’s grandmother insisted on doing herself because the painters in the area had been former associates of the late Mr. Charles Quillen and so were persona non grata to his grandmother.

She did require assistance, however, and this supporting role had always been played by Alex’s mother. Although she never expressed any particular excitement about the prospect of a multi-day painting project, neither did his mother ever express an unkind thought about it within Alex’s hearing, and Alex had grown up thinking of the periodic fence-painting operation as something like a holiday. When the fence and back garage had last been painted five summers earlier in 1975, a younger Alex had tried his best to take part, helping with things like fetching water to drink and cleaning up drips, and he’d made his grandmother promise to let him help the next time the fence would need painting. She had in fact promised, with his mother adding dryly that she would be quite willing to hand over this grave responsibility to her son.

When his grandmother reminded him of this commitment, the now twelve-year-old Alex had to admit he’d forgotten all about it, but rather than argue the point, he’d instead put her off, saying he wanted at least a week of rest after what he proclaimed to have been a most strenuous academic year. After that, however, he didn’t even bother with excuses. Each time she would bring it up, he’d shrug and suggest they do it later. At first, she fussed a bit and complained about his laziness, but with his mother busy for several weeks teaching summer school, his grandmother was loath to start the project without some assurance of help. As the summer heat settled in that July, she set the project aside, but when August arrived, the act of turning the calendar seemed to rile her. She put her foot down—not metaphorically but in a literal, foot-stamping demonstration of her frustration—and she decreed a starting date for the project that following week. She wanted to get it done that summer, dag-nab-it, and she was done hearing his excuses.

“We’ll start the scraping and peeling early morning so we can get it done by noon. It ain’t no chore to be started with the mid-day sun beating down on you the whole time.” Alex demurred, noting the misfortune that, now that he was old enough to be helpful, he’d reached the age of requiring double-digit hours of sleep. She was unmoved by his protests. She repeated her schedule and left it at that.

The morning in question dawned, lightened, and began to burn more brightly with no Alex in sight, and she began without him, which he discovered at eleven-thirty as he sauntered through his neighbors’ backyards—his mother’s house was on the same side of the road as his grandmother’s and separated by only two neighbors—and he could see as he approached that she’d already worked her way down the fence line more than half-way. She’d scraped away the loose and flaking paint from its entire length on the side that faced the house, the easy side with the outward facing boards, and on the other side with the difficult angles of attached board she’d worked nearly to the gate-break that swung out from the section that met the garage. He was impressed with her determination and the quality of what she’d done, and the weight of shame and disappointment made his arms feel heavy pulling on his shoulders. He thought he would volunteer to do the garage in the afternoon, but his paper-thin level of maturity burned away when he came to stand across from her on the other side of the fence and she locked eyes with him through the slats just under the fence header. “Just sit yourself inside, boy, and I’ll be in directly to make your dinner.” Despite her anger—the sweat rolling down her reddened face revealed the effort she’d expended—she spoke to him the way she’d spoken to him when he was a little boy, when she would set him up in front of his cartoons with his TV tray in air-conditioned comfort. “I wonder if I could trouble you to mix up your own chocolate milk. And draw me out a glass of water with three ice cubes. If you would.” Alex didn’t say anything. He merely nodded, which she didn’t usually accept as an answer, but to extend his humiliation, she ignored his juvenile response, dropping her eyes and resuming her scraping.

After a quiet lunch, she said she was done for the day, that it was too hot to work anymore, and that he should “just go on home.” He didn’t even look at the fence as he ran from the yard. His mother had gotten home by then, and when he came in through the back door she was coming up from the basement with an empty laundry basket and said, “You’re back awful early.”

He didn’t want to talk about it. He sat down in the kitchen while his mother moved around the house, and he tried to understand why he was so angry. He knew he was in the wrong, more or less—as long you discount the notion that he was, after all, a kid on summer vacation. He figured he had every right to relax and not to have to do chores, to appreciate the freedom of being young, or so all the grown-ups would say when they got nostalgic and depressing and envious of his so-called freedom. He was only doing what they wanted him to do, he reasoned. He grew indignant. When his mother came back though the kitchen on her way somewhere else, he said, “What do we have to paint this stupid fence and garage for, anyway? Don’t they have people who do that? What do we have to do it for?”

She stopped and stared at him for a few long seconds. “So what happened?”

“She started without me. And then she’s all like, ‘It’s too late now, go home, it’s too hot anyway.’”

“I do wish she’d hire that job out.” His mother pulled out a chair at the kitchen table and settled in. “But I don’t think she ever will.”

She seemed to be validating his bitterness, so he asked indignantly, “Why not?”

“Because your Grampa was a painter, and she judges all of them by his standard. You know he had a little trouble with his drinking.” There was no humor in her eyes, no wistfulness, only her normal flat stare. “He was friends with all of them. All the painters and builders. He was 4-F during the war—you know what that means, right? He had a bad back, and the Army didn’t want him—so he got a lot of work in the war years and got to know all the other painters and builders around here. Your Gramma thinks to this day they all drink and carouse like your Grampa used to, and she won’t hire any of them. It doesn’t make much sense because none of those men work anymore. But it doesn’t matter. She’s set in her ways.”

He was pouting, building up a grievance against his grandmother, as well as the fence. Alex had a love-hate relationship with the fence. He loved it as a pretend outfield wall when he played baseball in her backyard, but he hated that it was in the way for just about any other kind of play. It was an obstacle, an eye-sore that cut her yard in half for no obvious reason. “I wish we could just tear it all down. Her and her stupid fence. How about if we just get rid of it?”

His mother frowned, and her eyes hardened. He was surprised. She usually supported or at least was amused by these little frustrated outbursts about his grandmother’s obsessions and interests. “You don’t know the story of that fence and garage. Do you?”

He shrugged, then shook his head. His grandmother had never told him anything about the history of the house, except for occasionally saying, “I wish they’d built it a little better, but anyway, the roof don’t leak.”

His mother said the house had been his grandparents’ first home together, built from a standard plan offered by a local builder back in 1943. Dee had wanted a garage that was bigger than the single-car building in the plan, but the builder wouldn’t compromise, and he asked too much for the customization. So, as a surprise, Charlie called in all his debts and favors and arranged to have a big new open-ended three-slot garage with an attached fence built in the back, with a new extension to the driveway dug out and stone put down—all of it done by his buddies in the week while they were away on their honeymoon in Atlantic City.

“That was back when things were still okay with the two of them.” His mother was staring off at something, nothing, just looking into her memories. “Daddy was drinking then. He always drank, but not like later.”

Alex didn’t know much about his grandfather. Neither woman wanted to talk about him, and they didn’t seem to miss him all that much, as if he’d been something they’d had to live with for many years that had simply been removed one day, like the food and fuel rations during the war years or a long spell of foul weather that had passed. “Was Grampa that bad?”

“He wasn’t easy.” She took a breath and looked at him again, a smile lifting her mouth as if remembering it was Alex she was talking to. “Your Gramma, she’d fuss and fume at him about his drinking. It didn’t help. Might have made it worse.” She dropped her eyes for a moment and shook her head. “For your Grampa, life was just too much to handle. I think he thought maybe your Gramma was strong enough to handle it for both of them.” Her eyes were smiling again. “So, the fence and the garage, they were a gift—really a wedding present from your Grampa to your Gramma. So that’s part of the reason they might be special to her. It may be just about the only thing he ever gave her that she really wanted.” On saying this, she frowned for a moment, and her eyes darkened. She looked at Alex, as if to see if he was still paying attention. He was, but he hadn’t heard what she’d said. That is, he’d heard her words, but he’d not understood her accidental meaning. She rose from her chair. “Anyway, it means more to her than just a fence and a garage. That’s the point,” she said, rubbing his shoulder on her way back to the basement.

#

That evening, after supper, when the orange sun had dropped behind the houses across the road, Alex got permission from his mother to play in the yard while she watched television in the living room. He knew his grandmother would be doing the same thing in her living room, and so he snuck out of his mother’s yard and along the edge of the soybean field to his grandmother’s backyard figuring he’d be sure to have the back garage all to himself. There were several relics of his grandfather’s life in there. Hung on the south wall was his wooden ladder, splotched and spackled with spilled paint. Several slats of leftover press-board paneling lay across the rafters. Folded against the back wall were a pair of metal-framed canvas-seated lawn chairs. He pulled one of these down and unfolded it and sat in the mouth of the middle bay of the open garage, looking eastward over untold acres of soybean field and beyond that to the forest of elm and oak trees that lined a distant road. The night was coming on, and from where Alex sat it wasn’t a sunset, but instead it looked as if the darkness was rising in the east, the emptiness of deep space at the tops of the trees deepening and pushing the bruised border of the daytime sky over and behind the garage. Stars were flickering awake by degrees, no moon was out, and no safety lights had yet turned on as Alex sat in the gloom with the things his grandfather had left behind after he drank himself to death years before, back when his mother had been much younger than he was then, only eight or nine, still a little girl.

Until that day he’d not given much thought to what it meant to be a man named Quillen in this family, but as he reflected on the history lesson his mother had given him that day, he found there was little to recommend them. It was no wonder his grandmother hadn’t bothered to remarry, and he guessed this bad history must also be the reason his mother would never allow his own father to be a part of Alex’s life. Whoever that man had been. She would never say.

He considered for a squeamish moment what his grandmother might be thinking of him as she watched him growing lazier in the summer heat. Did she think it was typical? Just like a Quillen man? Or was it all men? Is that why his mother hadn’t said anything about it? Is that why she never let him have a father? Maybe she thought all men were just as useless as her father had been, all of them useless and lazy. But Alex didn’t feel like that. He wasn’t intending to be lazy his whole life. He wanted to be lazy that summer. He figured he had his whole life to be a grown-up. So why hurry? Why not enjoy it while he could? But what if that’s the way all bad men think? What if you just keep thinking that way, all the time, forever?

Alex’s departure had not gone undetected. His mother’s footsteps crunched the gravel in the turn-around in front of the bays. The light was so weak that she had to get within a few yards to be able to see him. “I thought you might come here,” she said. She pulled the other chair off the wall and sat beside him in the growing darkness. “You know, your grandfather used to sit out here like this, too.”

Alex didn’t exactly like hearing this might be an exclusive behavior of Quillen males. “Did you sit with him, too?”

“Sometimes. And sometimes I’d sit here by myself, after he was gone.” She paused, and he thought he heard her snort, like she did when she smiled at something kind of funny or kind of naughty. “Sometimes it’s good to get away from your mother for a little while, isn’t it?”

That wasn’t what he was doing, though. “I guess it’s good. Maybe not always.”

“That’s true. I’m trying to focus on the good part, though.” It was getting difficult to see her in the fading light, but she was turned to face him. “It’s hard to recall only the good parts out here in this place, but it’s nice that you’re here, now, Alex. I can’t tell you what it means to me right now to see you sitting next to me in that chair.” She put a hand on Alex’s shoulder and then ran her fingers through his hair, just past and over his left ear. It was a touch she often used to soothe him when he was younger, and it usually made him feel safe and comfortable. This time, though, he couldn’t help but feel that somehow it wasn’t meant so much to comfort him but instead to comfort her.

Now he didn’t want to sit out here in the dark anymore. “I guess maybe we should go inside, though. I guess I need to get up early if I want to help Gramma.”

It was too dark to see his mother’s eyes, but he heard her take a breath and let it out. “Yep. That sounds good.” They put the chairs away and started the walk back home. He’d begun to feel too old for it lately, but she wanted to hold his hand, and he let her this time. It was dark, after all, so no one could see it. And it was kind of comforting.

#

The next morning at seven, he sprinted over to his grandmother’s backyard, meeting her as she was beginning to pull out the equipment to finish the fence and start stripping the garage. She frowned at him, but he’d decided not to rise to any of her baiting. While she finished the fence, he took the ladder and started scraping and peeling the old paint off the west side of the garage, the side with the most weather damage that would be blistering hot in a few hours, saving the north and south sides for the afternoon when there would be shade. He worked until lunch and then afterwards went out alone and finished the rest of the building on his own.

While he was scraping and scraping and scraping, many times his arms and shoulders and legs would tire, and he’d take a break and think about what he was doing. As he watched the yellow chips flying off the boards and fluttering and twirling and diving onto the grass around the garage, he wondered how deep he’d have to scrape to get all his grandfather’s paint off this building. And how many of those flakes belonged to his mother, when it was just her and her own mother left to do the whole job themselves? He wondered if that was why his grandmother had been scraping so hard when she went at the boards herself the day before. He wondered if she did this every five years just to freshen up the paint or because she wanted to get rid of every last vestige of that man if she could. Or maybe he wasn’t in her mind at all. She’d kept the ladder and chairs and plywood, after all. She was nothing if not a practical woman.

He and his grandmother hadn’t said much to each other all day, but in the late afternoon when Alex was done and putting the ladder back into the garage, she came out to survey his work. She squinted in the brightness, shielding her eyes with her hand as the sun beat down on the scraping he’d done that morning on the west side. “You do good work, boy,” was all she would say about it. “There’s storms coming on, so make sure you get everything inside.”

The next morning, they started the painting, but they both stopped at lunchtime because the sun was too hot. When they resumed the following morning, his grandmother stopped them after they finished the western side. “I don’t know if we’re laying it on too think, or if the boards are soaking it up more than normal, but we’re about out of paint. I’m going to have to send your mother to the store to get another gallon, I reckon. Maybe two, just to be safe.” She had a few marks of cream-yellow paint on her checks and nose. “About time to quit for the day anyhow. You think you can get your mother to go to the store this afternoon?”

He was committed to the project now. He told her he’d see to it. After helping her put away their tools, he ran to tell his mother about their chore.

He never wondered why his mother had to be the one to go buy the paint. He just assumed it was one of the things that his grandmother was set in her ways about, and sometimes she delegated tasks to his mother. He went along to the hardware store, feeling as though he wanted to see out this aspect of the project, too, and when she asked the service man to mix up two more gallons of Gin Fizz, he didn’t even notice, really, what she’d said. But as they were riding home, his mother asked him, “Did you overhear what the paint color was?”

He repeated it for her.

“Now, this might seem a little strange, but do you think you can keep that to yourself?”

“Sure, I guess.” He shrugged it off, and then, when they got home and they carried the paint inside and he watched his mother popping the lid off one of the cans and smearing paint over the words “Gin Fizz” that the paint-mixer had helpfully written in grease pen, he understood what was going on. “You mean, Gramma doesn’t know that the fence and all is painted in Gin Fizz?”

He didn’t know what the “fizz” part meant exactly, but he knew about gin. He started to laugh at the thought of his grandmother surrounding herself with this color of paint named after booze—so much righteous indignation over liquor, like when she insisted that she would disown them both, him and his mother, if he was allowed to go on a school-sponsored trip for all the year-long honor roll students to a theme park because the park was sponsored by a beer company. He started to guffaw dramatically, but when his mother turned to look at him as if he’d just interrupted a funeral, he stopped himself. “I know it seems funny to you,” she said with her teacher’s gravity and self-possession, something he rarely saw at home, “but this is serious, Alex.” She secured the lid with some well-placed hammer blows, set the can on a porch step, and invited him to sit beside her.

He was already feeling repressed. “Why? I don’t even know what ‘gin fizz’ is.”

“It’s a cocktail. An alcoholic drink with gin and lemon juice. And I don’t know why your Grampa chose this color. Of all the colors to choose. I don’t know if he meant it as a joke, or if it was just a coincidence. But she’s always loved this color, ever since the day she saw it. That’s what she told me. She had Daddy paint the whole house this color, even the little garage and some of the lawn chairs we had when I was little. You know she likes cream-colored things.” She did have a number of yellow or cream-colored objects in or around her house, including wall paint, curtains, bed linens and coverings, dresses, shoes, hats, and the interior of the car she drove. “He knew she liked things that are lemony and citrus colors. I like to think that he just picked a color she liked regardless of the name and then tried to hide it from her for her own good. So she wouldn’t have a fit and reject it for the silliest of reasons.”

“What’s her deal with that anyway? I thought she was just like that because of Grampa. She was like that before, too?”

“I believe so. Her daddy’d been a bit of a drinker, too, and when her mother died kind of young, she had to care for her daddy and sisters, and it made her kind of bitter.”

Alex had never before considered his grandmother being any age other than as old as she was then. Even when he’d been imagining her as this newly-wed with a new house and husband, he saw her as wrinkly-faced and gray-haired. But she’d been a little girl once, and her mother had died, and she’d had to move into her aunt’s house, and she’d had to deal with a drunk father and two younger sisters who weren’t responsible to the mistress of the house like she was—he’d heard this history before in bits and pieces. Now he saw it. He saw that girl. He saw them trying to get away with all manner of foolishness, and how she would straighten them out, make them be a respectable family, make them mend their ways—or she’d have her foot up their asses.

“So, your Grampa had me go along with him the last time he picked up the paint for her. He let me in on the joke then. He was tickled by it. I was little, but I remembered. We had to keep it a secret. We had a lot of secrets.” He looked at her then, but she got up and moved to stand in front of him. She grabbed the handles of the two cans. “Let’s go drop these off and let her know it’s done so she won’t fret over it.” Before they left the yard, she stopped. “And we’ll keep the name to ourselves?”

He was suddenly uncomfortable with secrets. Keeping secrets was maybe another male Quillen characteristic he didn’t want to inherit. Still, he nodded. He didn’t want to make trouble.

#

The paint went up, across each board and down the posts and around the windows. In one way or another, he’d touched nearly every board of the garage, and a lot of the fence, and it was all covered now, all of it, with his own layer of paint, and he knew it was all Gin Fizz.

His grandmother was unquestionably pleased when they were finished. “It sure looks a darn-sight better now, don’t it?”

“Yep.”

“Sure does. A darn-sight better.”

They went into the house, and although the air-conditioning made the ninety-degree weather feel even stickier by contrast, they decided to take their celebratory glasses of lemonade out into the yard and sit in the shade behind the house and look on the sunbrightened results of their week-long efforts. They’d both downed a full glass and were settling into their second when a sick feeling took Alex’s stomach. He thought it might have been too much lemonade too fast, but when he closed his eyes, what he saw was a dark garage filled with secrets.

He held his tongue for as long as he could, but he saw no end to this discomfort. He had to make it stop, and he felt it wouldn’t stop until he’d gotten out from under the shadow of at least the one secret he knew about. “I heard about something the other day,” he said, believing he was being delicate and discrete. If he’d had a beard to stroke or a pipe to hold in front of his nonchalantly squinting eyes, he would have effected these poses. Instead, he plowed ahead with a quavering voice. “Have you ever heard of a drink called a Gin Fizz?”

His grandmother made no move at all for several moments. She didn’t even appear to be breathing. She looked straight ahead at the fence, same as she had been before he uttered those contemptible words. Finally, she took a sip of her lemonade and continued to look out into the yard. “I take it you did in fact accompany your mother to the paint store.”

He nodded, but she wasn’t looking at him, so he said, “Yes.”

She took another sip. “I know all about that. Yes, yes, yes. I know all about Gin Fizz.”

The truth had emerged from the darkness, but it hadn’t lightened his stomach. Now what had he done? Had he betrayed his mother? He hadn’t meant to do that.

“Your mother thinks I don’t know. Is that what she told you?”

“Yes.”

“Her daddy probably told her that. But he’s the one who told me. Never trust the memory of a drunkard.” She looked at him now, and he saw the color of her eyes was a lighter brown than his or his mother’s. He’d never noticed that before. He may have never really looked until then. “Told me a few times. Trying to hurt me. Your mother was too little to know anything about any of it. He’d do a lot things and not remember. Or claim not to.”

They were quiet for a while, and Alex felt calmer in the silence. So she knew. She’d known all along. “You’re okay with Gin Fizz?”

She pursed her lips, like she was about to spit. “That don’t mean nothing to me. It’s just a dang color name. And look at it.” She pointed her glass at the fence. “Your granddaddy weren’t good for much, but he knew his paint.”

“Why didn’t you ever tell Mom then?” He was growing upset again, this time because it was like she was keeping a secret from them. “So you could make her keep buying the paint?”

“No, boy. She buys the paint because she thinks she’s keeping a secret for her daddy. It ain’t got nothing to do with me. But I never have told your mother because she never has asked me about it.”

“Shouldn’t we tell her?”

“What for, boy?”

“Because.” The truth was self-evident. He didn’t know how to explain it. But she didn’t respond to him and didn’t seem likely to. His stomach was no less sour, and he didn’t like the idea of these secrets at all. There were too many secrets. He hated them. It was too much to hold in. “Because secrets are lies. You’re just lying to her. You’re not telling her the truth.”

His grandmother took a sip from her lemonade, ruminating on the matter. “Boy, sometimes things just ain’t that simple.”

“Yes they are,” he said. But after he thought about it, he asked, “What do you mean?”

“They ain’t that simple. It ain’t just about lying and such. I can’t explain it to you. You’re too young to understand. It ain’t your fault that you’re too young, so don’t go on belly-aching about it. But there’s some things that are best left dead and buried. They ain’t secrets so much as they’re just dead history, and just like you don’t go digging up dead things to prove they’re still dead, you don’t go bringing up old dead history just because you want to feel good about yourself. Am I making myself clear, boy? It ain’t a secret not bringing up stuff nobody wants to talk about. It ain’t lying.” She took a breath. “It’s just common decency.”

He knew now he’d been right all along about the garage, no matter what his mother had told him, no matter what his grandmother might think of it. They’d be better off without that man’s garage, just like they were better off without the man himself. But they wouldn’t rid themselves of it. They’d live with it, and every five years or so when its ugliness threatened to reveal itself, they’d scrape the ugly away and paint over it, cover it up, and make it look like they loved it. Even invent excuses for it. Make you feel bad for even suggesting there’s anything wrong—oh, no, there’s nothing wrong here, nothing dark or ugly to see here. Look how pretty it is now, shimmering in the sunlight. No one’s ever going to know what darkness is inside it. As long you don’t say anything about it and embarrass everybody.

“I don’t understand,” Alex said into his sour glass of lemonade. But it wasn’t true. He was beginning to put it all together, beginning to understand exactly how it works in a family with secrets to keep. In fact, he was already playing his part, trying to fool himself and his grandmother, saying what he wished was true. “I just don’t get it.”

“I thank the Lord for that.” His grandmother leaned back in her chair, a rare contented smile warming her face, and closed her eyes against the brightening reflection of the lowering sun. “The Lord knows if it were up to me, boy, you never would understand.”

 

 

BIO

Eric BrittinghamEric B. Brittingham was born and raised among the soybean fields of downstate Delaware, and now lives and works as a technical communicator in northern Alabama. He is currently working on a novel that further explores the lives of the characters in this story. This is his first published work of fiction.

 

 

 

The Last of the Cowboys

by Jude Roy

 

 

When Joe Archer threatened to kill me, I took it up with the head of university security.

“There’s very little we can do unless he physically assaults you.” Paul Richelieu was a burly man with a grayish buzz that covered his head like a swath of mowed grass. A slick handlebar moustache dangled from the corners of his mouth. His nervous brown eyes kept dancing from me to the door and back to me.

“What?” I asked. “You mean he has to kill me before you can do anything about it?”

Richelieu studied his fingernails for a second of two before glancing up at me. He had large hands with stubby sausage fingers.

“It’s your word against his. Was anyone privileged to the alleged threat?”

“Excuse me? ‘Alleged threat’?” I wanted to say more—to remind him that I was the professor and Archer was the student—to remind him that I had been teaching at Immanuel University for five years and Archer was a first-year student—but I knew that none of that would help my case. Richelieu had a reputation for being tough on faculty.

He shifted his bulk in the office chair, and it creaked in protest.

“You know he’s going to deny it. Then it’ll be your word against his.” His eyes darted to the door and back at me. “You did say that there was no witness to the alleged threat?”

“Not that I know of. He came to me after class. “Richelieu held his hands out and shrugged his shoulders in a gesture of helplessness.

“I am the professor,” I said, despite myself. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

A grin slowly spread across Richelieu’s face. He was going to enjoy his response.

“Diddily shit,” he said through yellow teeth.

I nodded, stood, and made to leave.

“Do you want me to talk to him?” He asked, reluctantly.

“And piss him off more than he is?” It was my turn to smile. “I’ll deal with the situation since security seems incapable.” I turned my back on him and walked out.

***

“He did nothing?” Gayla yelled when I told her the events of the day.

“Nothing,” I said shrugging my shoulders. “Apparently it’s my word against Archer’s and neither one of us holds the edge.”

“But you are the professor, the authority figure in this case. Aren’t you?”

“According to Richelieu, that means diddily shit—his words, not mine.”

Gayla paced a few times before the stove. She cooked chicken curry stew, my favorite meal, and the aroma stimulated my appetite. I reached into the refrigerator and pulled out a beer, one of those dark Spanish types that I liked.

“Don’t go to class,” she said. “It isn’t worth it.”

“I can’t just shirk my responsibility,” I said. “What about all the other students who paid good money to be taught English? I owe them something.”

“You don’t owe them your life.”

My six-year-old son walked into the kitchen, hugged my leg, poured himself a glass of lemonade, and disappeared again out the back door.

My wife waited until the screen door slammed shut before continuing.

“This is ludicrous. Someone threatens to pop a cap in your head and you don’t take it seriously.”

Coming from my wife it sounded farcical, but it hadn’t sounded funny when earlier that afternoon Joe Archer said almost the same words. My three o’clock developmental class was the last of the day for me. It ended at three fifty and I was usually at home by four fifteen if no students stayed after class with questions. I waited respectfully as the students filed out. Then I started to file out with them. As I was just about to go past Joe’s desk, he stood up and blocked my path. He was a non-traditional student—older than the others were—a tall sinewy man with dark, severe eyes.

“Just a minute,” he said. “I want to talk to you.”

“Okay.” I returned to the front of the room and placed my stack of books on my desk. Joe Archer threw his backpack next to my books and leaned across the desk.

‘I don’t like English,” he said. There was not a trace of humor or sarcasm in his voice.

I laughed, suspecting a joke. I looked over his shoulder expecting someone to pop in and say, “Got you.”

“You see something funny out there?” He indicated the door with a nod of his head. His eyes never left mine.

“Listen,” I said, trying to disguise the sudden fear rising in my chest. “You don’t have to like English. It’s a class. You take it. You pass it. You go on.”

“You’re going to pass me. Right?”

“If you make the grade, I’ll definitely pass you.”

“Let’s get something straight, Mr. Professor. Either you pass me, or…” He held his arm out, his hand shaped like a pistol and aimed at my forehead. “Or bang.”

“Are you threatening me?”

He glanced over his shoulder at the empty room.

“I been to Vietnam, Mr. Professor. I killed more gooks than I’d care to count. I even killed a snotty-nosed lieutenant that tried to send me down one of those rat holes out there. You think I’m going to have any problems popping a cap in an English professor’s head?”

I didn’t answer. I picked up my books and marched out of the room on shaky legs. When I arrived in my office, I called my wife and relayed what had occurred.

“Go see security,” she said. “He needs to be removed from campus.”

That hadn’t worked.

I tried not let on to Gayla just how frightened I was. I took a spoon from the silverware drawer and dipped it into the curry chicken. I blew on it for a few seconds and sipped it.

“Man, I’m so glad I married you and didn’t let that skinny biology dude grab you. If he had known how well you cook curry chicken, he would have put up much more of a fight.”

My wife scowled at me.

“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing. You’re not going to get out of this that easy.”

‘What can I do, Gayla? I need the job. I can’t just quit because some psycho asshole decides to intimidate his English teacher.” I chuckled and reached in the refrigerator for a beer. It was just too bizarre—an English teacher of all things.

“Call your department head.”

“Oh, come on Gay. I’m on tenure track. I can’t go around stirring up the waters.”

My son popped his head in the doorway.

“Are you two fighting?”

“No,” we both exclaimed and he quickly withdrew.

“Call him,” Gayla said and handed me the phone. I sighed and took a long sip from my beer.

Paul Washburn’s specialty was John Donne. He was a small pale man usually dressed impeccably in a suit and a skinny tie. He had a whinny voice that sounded like it was coming from the bottom of a tin drum. I was hoping he would not be in his office or would not be answering his phone at 6:00 o’clock in the evening, but I knew he would be.

“Washburn,” he whined.

“Dr. Washburn, this is Gary Soileau.”

“Yes, Gary. How are you?”

“Fine, sir. Uh, I’m afraid there’s been a sort of incident during my developmental class today.”

“Oh? Nothing serious, I hope.”

I looked at Gayla and rolled my eyes. She shook a stirring spoon at me, threatening me forward.

“Serious enough that I took it to Richelieu.”

“That does sound serious. What happened?”

“One of my students, Joseph W. Archer, threatened me. He threatened to pop a cap in my head if I didn’t pass him.”

“Pop a cap?”

“Yes, sir, that’s the vernacular for put a bullet in my head.”

“Are you sure there was no misunderstanding?”

“Absolutely sure.”

“What did Richelieu say?”

“That he couldn’t do anything until the student actually carried out his threat.”

“He actually said that?”

“Perhaps not in those words, but that was his meaning.”

“You probably should have come to me first with this, Gary. It usually is best to keep these kinds of problems within the department if we can.”

“Sir, this was very serious. The man looked capable of carrying out his threat. At the time, I thought security was the right choice.”

“Water through the dam. What do you want me to do? Reassign you?”

“No, sir. It doesn’t matter who takes over the class. He is going to have to deal with Archer.”

“What then?”

“I wasn’t asking you to do anything, Dr. Washburn. I simply was informing you of the situation, in case something untoward did happen.”

Gayla glared at me. I shrugged my helplessness.

“I tell you what I’ll do, Gary. I’ll have Security place extra people around that area Wednesday. What is your classroom number?”

“25B, sir. But I don’t think Archer would attempt anything at school. Extra security may just complicate matters.”

‘Tell me what you want me to do, Gary.”

“Nothing, Dr. Washburn. I can handle Joe Archer. If it gets any messier, I will contact you.”

“That sounds like a good plan, Gary. Keep me posted. Okay?”

“Yes, sir. I will. Goodbye, Dr. Washburn.”

“Goodbye, Gary.” He hung up.

I handed the phone to Gayla, and she slammed it on the cradle. I chugged my beer and reached inside the refrigerator for another.

“Damn,” I said and faced an angry Gayla.

“You should have been more assertive.”

“Alright Gayla, You tell me. What would you have done?”

She stepped away from the stove and stood in front of me. Her action reminded me of Archer.

“I would have told Washburn to do something. It is his responsibility to make sure his people have a secure place to work in, Gary. You wimped out and took on the responsibility on your shoulders. You always do that. Sometimes you’re so damn macho.”

“You can’t have it both ways, Gayla. Either I’m wimpy or I’m macho. I can’t be both.”

She raised her hand. I thought she was going to slap me, but she didn’t. With a cry of exasperation, she stomped out of the room.

***

I prepared myself as best I could for the next meeting with Joe Archer. I bought a pepper spray canister and convinced myself that I could handle him if he tried anything in my classroom. He entered with the other students, dropped his book bag, with the skull and cross bone patch stenciled on it, on the floor, and glared at me. I taught my class as usual, keeping a hand close to the pepper spray and a wary eye on Joe.

Actually, the only real problem I had with Joe during the course of the semester was the time I took the class to the computer lab to introduce them to word processing. He waited until all the students had filed out. Then he stood and confronted me.

“I’m not going,” he said crossing his arms over his chest. He wore a black sleeveless shirt and his biceps bulged intimidatingly.

“What?” I rested my hand on the pepper spray.

“I’m not going. I don’t know a damn thing about computers and I don’t want to either. I’m not going.”

‘Do you know how to type? That’s basically all I’m going to ask the students to do.”

‘I don’t type either.”

I decided that I had two choices. I could cite my syllabus, pointing out to him that it explicitly stated that all papers written out of class needed to be typed, or I could try a different approach.

“How’s your handwriting?”

He looked at me at me in surprise, his eyes widening, his arms dropping to his side.

“Decent, I suppose.”

“Good,” I said. “All I’m going to do is have the rest of the students type up a rough draft of their essays. Why don’t you stay in the classroom and write yours out. When you’re done you can bring it to me in the comp lab. Okay?”

“Yeah, sure, I guess.” He started to turn around—then stopped. “What else?”

“Nothing. Don’t forget to double space.”

He sat down and I joined the other students in the computer lab. Thirty-five minutes later he handed me his paper, printed in a careful hand.

“You’ll let me know how I did on that?”

“Next meeting,” I said.

Joe’s paper was a three-paragraph proposal to use ex-servicemen as supervisors of youth boot camps. His idea was well thought out—the execution was weak; however. I saw the potential of the work and kept him after class.

“That’s a good essay,” I said, placing it face up on his desk. He looked down and lifted it with two hands.

“It can’t be that good. You bled all over it.”

I smiled. It was the first time I’d ever heard him joke about something in the class.

“Sure, it’s got a few problems with execution, but the idea is solid as a rock. I believe it’s an idea worth pursuing, Joe.”

“I’ve been thinking about this a lot, Professor. I can’t think of anybody who would be more qualified to run them than ex-jarheads like me.”

“Were you in the marines?”

“Yeah, man. Spent two years in Nam. Took a shrapnel in my arm.” He lifted his arm and showed me an ugly red scar. “Damn thing entered just above the elbow and came out just behind my shoulder there.” He pulled his shirtsleeve back and showed me the exit scar. “I was damn lucky it didn’t hit a bone. I spent a few weeks stateside healing up, turned right around again, and volunteered to go back to Nam. I was there at the fall of Saigon. I felt the humiliation.” He paused a moment, and I watched as he consciously pulled himself together. “Yeah, man. I was in the marines.”

“Tell me about those boot camps, Joe.”

He talked for a good while and I was impressed with how knowledgeable he was on the topic. He invited me to go have a beer with him at the local VFW Post. I agreed and I called Gayla, who was horrified that I was even considering it.

“He’ll take you somewhere and shoot you,” she argued.

“No, honey. I got a glimpse of him today. I don’t think he would do that.”

“You don’t think? Gary, you’re not a psychologist.”

“Listen, he’s an interesting person. He’s invited me to have a beer and talk. I think I should take him up on it.”

There was a long pause over the phone.

“Damn it, Gary, you’re doing that macho stuff again.” She paused waiting for me to say something, but there was no way I was going to take the bait. She broke the silence with a sigh. “Where are you going?”

“The VFW Post.”

“Oh, god. With all his homicidal, fanatical, ex-army friends.”

“Marine.”

“What?”

“Marines, he was in the marines, Gay.”

“Damn you, Gary.”

“It’ll be alright, Gayla.”

“It damn well better be, or I’ll never talk to you again.”

“Listen to you.”

“Be careful, Gary.”

“I will.”

***

I met Gayla in Lafayette, Louisiana where I was student teaching and working on my Masters of English degree. It was a beautiful spring day, and I had a break, so I took the Evelyn Waugh book I was reading for one of my classes and made my way to Garrard Park just a few blocks from campus. I chose a picnic table shaded by a live oak and cracked open the book. The table sat next to a walking path and Gayla jogged past. I couldn’t believe how beautiful she was. When she jogged past me again, the book lay closed on the picnic table—forgotten. The only thing on my mind was Gayla. She wore skimpy jogging shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt. She had tied her hair, almost as long as it was now, into a ponytail, and it bounced in rhythm with her running. When she came around the third time, I made my move.

“Aren’t you tired yet?” I called out.

She stopped running, faced me, and jogged in place.

“No,” she said simply and took off again.

The fourth time she came around, I didn’t say anything, as well as the fifth. The sixth time she came around, I decided to say something.

“Now, I’m tired.”

She stopped again and jogged in place. She was breathing hard.

“Are you watching me?”

“Uh, huh. That’s how I get my exercise.”

She smiled. Probably because that was either the most unusual pickup line or the stupidest, she’d ever heard.

“Who are you?” She was still jogging in place.

“I teach at the college.”

“You’re a professor?”

“That’s in my future. Right now, I’m a student teacher.”

“What do you teach?”

“Writing, mostly developmental writing. I struggled with writing all my life, and now that I’ve seen the light, I want to share it with others.”

“Really,” she said and took a seat at the table with me. “And just what is the secret?”

“Exercise. Now, it’s my turn to ask a question.”

“Wait a minute,” she interrupted. “What do you mean by ‘exercise’?”

“Writing is a physical memory like shooting a free throw or hitting a tennis ball. The more you do it the better you get.”

“What if you start off doing it wrong?”

“Then you miss and figure out why. My turn to ask questions.”

“Okay, that’s fair.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a student at the college?”

“Really? I’ve never seen you in my classes. I would remember.”

“I know how to write, apparently.”

“Touché.”

“I’m working on a BS in mathematics.”

“Oh, God, my Achilles’ Hell.”

“Shouldn’t that be Achilles’ Heel?”

“No. Hell as in H E double L.”

She laughed. She had a nice laugh uninhibited as a child might laugh. “Do you ever go out?”

“Sometimes.”

“Where do you like to go?”

“Now, who’s asking all the questions?”

“One more, okay?” She nodded. “Would you consider going out with me?”

She looked at the book sitting on the table.

“What book is that?”

“You’re avoiding the question.”

“Yes, I am. I don’t know you.”

“What’s there to know? My name is Gary Soileau. I teach writing. I’m kind to animals. I like to help people better themselves, and I earn enough to afford to take a beautiful woman to a decent restaurant.”

She laughed again.

“Okay, but I’m a tough nut to crack.”

“Believe me, my intentions are honorable.”

The rest was history. The chemistry between us was incredible. We married the day after I received my diploma.

***

The VFW Post was just out of town, down a narrow tree-lined blacktop road. The building was a low-slung brick rectangle with a glass door and no windows. A dusty graveled driveway circled the flagpole in front of the building and a sad-looking Sherman tank in need of paint sat alone in a circle of gravel to the side. Someone had planted lilies around the edge of the circle.

Joe met me at the door with two bottles of Budweiser. He handed me one and then led me through a lobby and down a short hallway to a bar. A Johnny Cash tune blared from the speakers hanging from the four corners of the room. Several men smoked and drank at the bar while another group sat at a table in the corner playing cards. The room was thick with smoke and smelled like beer.

“Hey, everybody,” Joe yelled out over the music. ‘This is my English professor.”

“Big fucking deal,” someone at the table said. A couple of men from the bar nodded. One of them slid off his stool and shook my hand.

“Any friend of Joe’s is a friend of mine,” he said and returned to his drink after a nervous glance at Joe.

“These are the regulars,” Joe said, indicating the bar with his beer bottle. “They come in every day and this is what they do—drink, play cards, and relive the wars.” He offered me a stool and sat on the one next to it.

“How about you?” I asked.

He nodded, slowly.

“Yeah, me too.” He turned and picked at the label on his beer bottle for a while. “Can I tell you something, Professor?”

“Go ahead.”

“I can’t talk to them about some things. You know what I mean?” I shook my head. “I can talk to them about wars and killing and shit like that, but I can’t talk to them about other things.”

“Such as, Joe?”

He glanced over his shoulder at the card table.

“Ideas, you know. Oh shit, man. I write poetry.”

I almost laughed. He was so serious.

“Oh,” I said, stroking my moustache. “What kind of poetry?”

“Just stuff, man. About the war. About John Wayne. About my woman. You know, stuff.”

“About John Wayne?”

“He’s my hero.”

He fell silent again, picking at the beer label. I listened to a Waylon Jennings tune, and surveyed the room. It wasn’t a big room. The bar ran along one wall, the shelves behind it filled with bottles of whiskey and liquor. The music came from a small cassette deck. The bartender was a short man with a hard face and thick arms and legs—probably an ex-serviceman, too. The walls were covered with posters—of servicemen, scantily clad women, and weapons. Three small round tables lined the wall opposite the bar. A ceiling fan twirled on low, the light from it joined the two beer sign lights hanging from the entrance wall and the back wall to illuminate the dark room. A floor lamp provided the card players with light enough to read their cards.

“I know me and you got off to a rough start,” Joe said. “That was before I understood about you.”

“What do you understand about me, Joe?” I was curious.

He glanced at me, and then returned to his beer label.

“That you care about whether we learn this shit or not. It’s important to you.”

“You’re very observant.”

“I know about caring, Professor.” He looked at me. “Can I ask you a favor—a big favor?”

“Sure,” I said. “Ask away.” I wanted another beer, so I signaled the bartender to bring over two more.

“Would you mind reading over some of my poetry? Letting me know if it’s any good?”

“Not at all, Joe. I would love to.”

I had two more beers before I left there and drove home. Gayla was furious. Why hadn’t I called? Didn’t I know that she was worried sick about me? I leaned over and kissed her on the forehead.

“Don’t ever worry about Joe Archer, honey. He and I are buds. He’s letting me read his poetry.”

She looked at me as if I was crazy.

***

At first, married life with Gayla was fantastic. I got a job teaching at Clemson University in South Carolina, but it was one of those four years and you’re out kind of jobs.

“Without a PhD,” the department head told me. “We can’t put you on tenure track.” That’s when I knew that I would have trouble finding a tenured job. I had three choices: find another career, get a PhD, or publish. I had taken a few creative writing courses, so I wrote this satire about a black man elected mayor of a small Louisiana town and sent it to the Atlantic. To my complete surprise, the magazine decided to publish it. When my four years at Clemson ended, I applied for a tenured position at Emanuel University and they accepted me. Washburn wanted me to teach creative writing. I said I would if he allowed me to teach developmental writing also. He jumped on it. Apparently, most tenured teachers didn’t like teaching developmental. I gathered my wife and my five-year-old son and moved to Springfield.

At first, life was good. The department liked me fine. They had me teaching two creative writing classes and two developmental classes. Where life was getting complicated was at home. Gayla was becoming officious. She started monitoring my career telling me how to act in front of the senior faculty, and whom I needed to impress. She told me that I wasn’t aggressive enough—I needed to sway the right people—make demands. I felt as if she was entering a part of my life I didn’t want her in. I felt as if my home life should be separate from my work life. I wanted her to let me handle my own career. Her meddling was irritating.

***

The semester was a good one. Joe passed my developmental class with an A+. In fact, I recommended the department give him credit for Writing I. He had improved that much. About a week after finals, I received a phone call from him inviting me to come to his apartment for a drink. I suspected he wanted me to read his poetry, so I accepted.

His apartment was about a block from campus in one of those neighborhoods that catered to students. I climbed the iron stairs to the second floor and knocked on the door. Joe opened it holding a bottle of Corona in his fist.

“Here,” he said and pushed the bottle at me. I took it and followed him into the place. He led me to a cloth couch across from a television. The first thing I noticed was the John Wayne posters. There must have been five or six in that one room—John Wayne as a green beret. John Wayne as a World War II soldier. John Wayne as a Seabee. John Wayne as an oilman. John Wayne as a cavalryman. John Wayne as a cowboy. And my favorite, John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn, the cantankerous old cowboy in True Grit. A stack of VCR tapes sat on the television. All the titles I could read were John Wayne movies. In fact, The Green Berets played on the television with the sound turned down.

“You like John Wayne, huh?”

“I told you. He’s my hero. Nobody did more for our country than John Wayne. I try to live my life following his example.”

“I see.”

Joe disappeared for a few minutes and reappeared holding a bottle of tequila and a black folder. He held out the bottle to me; I shook my head. He shrugged and raised it to his lips. I watched his adam’s apple bob up and down as he swallowed several good drinks. He pulled the bottle from his lips with a satisfying sigh, recorked it, and placed it on the floor between us. He handed me the black folder.

“These represent my life,” he said, his voice stony serious.

The folder contained about twenty or thirty poems, carefully hand printed in blue ink. Each poem was numbered and dated. Each one rhymed. Poem number one beseeched Emily to “fill his heart and empty his head”—begged Emily “to lose her innocence and climb into his bed.” Poem two rejoiced in his love for her. Poem number five was a tribute to John Wayne. “He walks across the screen like he walks across my heart. With everything he does, he asks me to do my part.” The poem ends with, “And now that he’s dead and gone to his maker/his memory a mere cocktail shaker/of scenes and lines, I can only drink to who he was/and offer him my drunken applause.” Poem nine was about Vietnam—a friend “spread around the gook countryside like chopped up manure.” In poems ten through fifteen, he begs Emily to come back to him. In fifteen, he threatens to commit suicide if she doesn’t: “I will blow my fucking brains out on this clean white ceiling. /Understand what I’m saying—listen to my feelings.” The rest of the poems, sixteen through twenty-one, were about Vietnam or people he knew in Vietnam. Number nineteen was about a friend’s ashes “sitting on the altar of life. /Free from all worries—free of all strife.” Number twenty-one, dated the day before, expressed the futility of making sense of life after Vietnam. “Once you’ve held a bleeding heart in your hand—/Once you’ve heard the music of God’s big band,/Then you can never go back to living as normal people do./You can only mix in with the living stew/Drink yourself to death—drink yourself to death/And breath your last breath—breath your last breath.”

When I had read all twenty-one, I reached down and took a swig of tequila.

Joe took the bottle from me and swallowed some more.

“What’d you think?” He asked after capping the bottle.

“There are some very powerful poems in here, Joe.”

He took the folder from me and scanned the pages.

“It’s like I told you, Professor. This is my life. This is me.” He shook the folder at me and tossed it on the coffee table where it came to rest next to a John Wayne comic book. “Can I tell you something, Professor?” I nodded. “It’s personal.” I nodded again. “Come with me,” he said, and I followed him into his small kitchen. He pulled open the refrigerator and pulled out two Coronas. He gave me one and pointed the other to a row of pill bottles neatly lined up on the counter. “A couple of years ago I visited a VA psychiatrist. I was depressed—couldn’t seem to stop myself from crying. I’d watch a John Wayne movie and boohoo like a baby. Hell, I’d be sitting in a restaurant eating a Burger King or something and start boohooing. The doctor prescribed me TCA’s, uh, Tricyclic Antidepressants. I started shaking like a tree in a windstorm. I couldn’t even hold a phone to my ear without pounding myself to death. Then I started throwing up. I’d go to piss and it was worse than an old man—I’d stand at the urinal with my thingy in my hand and wait and wait and wait for a teeny little drizzle. It was pathetic. So the doctor prescribed Phenelzine and when that didn’t work, he prescribed tranylcypromine.”

I shook my head. I had never heard of any of those medications.

“Yeah, I know what you’re thinking; ‘He sounds like a fucking pharmacist.’ Well, I do. It’s a necessary side-effect of what I have.” He took a swig from the tequila and chased it down with a swig of Corona. “I ballooned to twice my size and nearly killed myself when I gorged on a hunk of blue cheese. How the hell was I supposed to know that you weren’t supposed to eat aged cheese with that crap? That’s when the doctor put me on fluoxetine, Prozac. Life is near perfect for me now.” He picked up a bottle of pills and shook one out. He placed it on his tongue and chased it down with a swallow of tequila. I tend to be a little more aggressive, but not nearly as aggressive as I was in Vietnam, so it’s a matter of degree, I guess. I don’t sleep as much, which is okay because when I do sleep, I have these violent dreams. The last time I slept, I dreamed that I killed a man by shoving a mop handle up his butt. Can you imagine? A mop handle?” He shook his head and laughed. Then he took a long swallow from his beer. “Come here,” he said. “I want to show you something.” We walked down a short hallway until we came to a door on the right. He pulled out a key and unlocked the deadbolt installed in the door. “This is no everyday flimsy interior door, Professor. This is a steel reinforced exterior door. If you’re going to break into this room, you’ll have to have a battering ram or the key.” He swung the door opened with fanfare. “Welcome to my special room,” he said.

The room was a standard apartment bedroom, approximately ten feet square, but what was amazing was the color. The ceiling was a glossy white, the walls were a glossy red, and bright blue tile covered the floors. The two windows in the room were painted red and barred. The wall opposite the door held a map of Vietnam about five feet by five feet. Little black and white pins covered the map. The wall to my right was an arsenal. Several rifles and pistols rested on racks and in rectangular cases. I recognized an AR15 and a .45 caliber pistol. Another weapon looked like a grenade launcher, but I didn’t know enough about military weapons to say for sure. One rectangular case held four grenades, the pins still in them. An American flag covered the wall to my left. Behind me, the wall held several road maps: Arkansas, Louisiana, Michigan, California, Montana, and Missouri. Pins dotted their surfaces, too. In the middle of the room, directly under the light, a flag-draped altar stood. On top of it sat an urn.

‘How do you like it?” Joe asked.

I was speechless. The room frightened me—perhaps it was due to the bars on the windows, or the weapons, or maybe the care with which he had arranged everything, or the garishness of it all.

‘What is it, Joe?”

‘It’s my special room. You’re only the third person to ever see it, not including me.” He grabbed my arm at the elbow and led me to the Vietnam map. “The white pins are engagements I’ve been in—the black ones indicate the death of someone I knew.”

“Wow.” There were at least twenty-five black pins, and too many white ones to count. I nodded toward the urn. “What’s this?” I asked.

Joe walked over to the altar and gently placed a hand on the urn.

“This is ConnieMac. The sweetest son-of-a-bitch to ever share a foxhole with me.”

“You served with him in Vietnam?”

“Uh huh. CM and I were at Khe Sanh together. We separated when I got wounded in the Lam Son 719 operation. I got a ticket home. He and I joined forces again just before the Fall of Saigon. You know what’s crazy—CM never received even a scratch in Vietnam. He dodged bullets, grenades, mortar fire—you name it. He never even received a scratch. Comes back to the U.S. and the next thing I know, I get a telegram from some rinky-dink town in Louisiana saying they got the ashes of one ConnieMac Beauregard and that they found a paper on him requesting that they send his ashes to me. Would I send them the postage money?” Joe took a long drink from the bottle of tequila. “CM was a hero, man. A fucking hero and they don’t have the courtesy to pay for mailing his ashes.” He shook his head. His eyes watered, and he wiped the tears away with his forearm, the tequila sloshing in the bottle. “I sent them the money. I wouldn’t want those SOB’s to dirty his memory with their cheapness.”

I tried to think of something, but I had the distinct impression that I did not know the whole story, nor was Joe going to tell it to me. Instead, I nodded, indicating to him that I shared his sense of outrage.

Joe walked to the wall, which held the weapons and pulled down a .45 caliber pistol.

“This was my favorite,” he said, charging the weapon. “I couldn’t hit the side of a barn with it, but when I did hit, man, it would knock those gooks back. I shot one at twenty-five feet once. Right here.” He pointed to his forehead with the gun. “Went in clean—a tiny little hole like a third eye—but the back of his head was missing. I mean it was totally missing. Killed that mother instantly. Never knew what hit him.” Joe examined the gun in his hand, then raised it and pointed it at my forehead. “If I was to shoot you, Professor, it would go in smooth as a hot knife through butter, but it would come out like a brick through glass.”

“Joe, would you point that thing somewhere else?”

“You are a trusting individual, Professor. What’s makes you think that I didn’t lure you here to pop a .45 in your brainy head?”

I had trouble standing, and I developed an uncontrollable urge to urinate. I forced myself to stand taller.

“Take your best shot, Joe, but don’t you dare miss.” My hand went automatically to the pepper spray canister that I still carried in my pocket. Joe’s eyes followed my movement. He laughed.

“You got balls, Professor. I’ll give you that.” He lowered the pistol, and I was able to breathe again.

I turned and walked out of Joe’s apartment and never saw him again.

***

“You fool,” Gayla yelled at me when I told her what happened. Will sat at the table eating cookies and milk. Gayla was visibly shaken. “You stupid, stupid fool. Didn’t you even think about your family? What about our son? What about me having to raise a child without his father? How do I explain to him just how stupid you were?”

I glanced at Will, but he looked down at the table.

“I didn’t know he was going to do that, Gayla.”

“What is it with men that they have to court danger—that they need danger to feel more alive? Fucking cowboys, all of you. That’s it, isn’t it? You’ve been flirting with this guy all semester—playing Russian roulette with a mentally unstable person just so you can feel macho.”

“Oh come on, Gayla. I had no idea the man was so unstable.” She hit me—slapped me on the arm, over and over again until I grabbed her wrists.

“What the hell is the matter with you?”

She cried, the tears flooding from her eyes.

“You are an intelligent man, Gary Soileau. Who in the hell do you think you’re deceiving?”

I released her, and she turned away from me.

“I’m sorry, Gay. Maybe there was some of that macho, John Wayne stuff in what I did, but I never thought…”

“You never thought, Gary. That’s it exactly. You never thought about your family.” I reached over and placed a hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off. “Don’t touch me, Gary. You don’t care about Will and me.”

“Come on, Gay. I love you.”

“No you don’t, Gary.” She faced me. Her dark eyes pierced mine. “Look at him.” She nodded at Will, who sat quietly at the table, tears leaking down his cheek. “Look at what you’re doing to him.”

I went to him, but he stood and ran to his mother, who encircled him protectively with her arms. I wanted to yell, “Joe is the dangerous one. Not me,” but I didn’t because I knew she would not understand.

***

That night Gayla and I attended a small get-together at Dr. Franks’, a professor of psychology, house. There were several other people there, academic types. The conversation turned to the differences between men and women. Dr. Franks said that men were much more aggressive than women were, and I countered that women were just as aggressive but in more subtle ways.

He nodded.

“In what ways, Gary?”

“Their aggressiveness is more verbal than it is physical.”

“Interesting. Give me an example.”

The only example I could give was between Gayla and me. I’d had a couple of beers, so I figured, what the hell. I glanced at Gayla, and her eyes pleaded me not to go on.

“Here is a hypothetical situation. Suppose a woman is not happy with her husband, so she demeans his manhood.”

“Demeans, Gary?”

“She calls him a wimp—spineless and cowardly.”

“And how does this make him feel?”

“To be crass, deballed. He does everything in his power to support his wife and child, and when he does show signs of aggression, she calls him a cowboy, another derogatory word in her vocabulary.”

“He has a child.”

That’s when I realized everybody was aware that I was talking about myself and Gayla.

“The point I was trying to convey is that women are just as aggressive as men except their aggressiveness is more verbal,” I said feebly.

Afterwards, once we were home, Gayla tore into me.

“How could you embarrass me like you did?”

“I didn’t mean to, Gay.”

“You didn’t mean to?”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Tell me something. Do you love me?”

“Of course, I do.”

“Then how could you embarrass me in front of those people the way you did?”

“You weren’t the only one I embarrassed, Gay.”

“Who else?”

“Me. I embarrassed myself too.”

“Yes, you did,” she said and stomped off.

***

When I said I never saw Joe Archer again, I was only partially correct. In the middle of the spring semester, I received a phone call from the Bohemian National Crematorium to pick up the ashes of Joseph Wayne Archer. The urn was ceramic with the American flag depicted on one side and a marine at parade rest on the other. A trip to the police department told me how he died. Apparently, Joe stared into the muzzle of a gun for the last time.

“You shoulda seen the room they found him in,” the detective in charge of the case told me. “Painted red, white, and blue with maps of Vietnam and all sorts of guns hanging up on the wall. There was a busted up plastic urn on the floor and ashes spread out all over the place mixed in with the guy’s blood. It was a real mess. The guy musta been watching a John Wayne movie when he decided to do it, ‘cause there was one playing on the television in the living room—the one where John Wayne has cancer or something—The Shootists, isn’t it.”

“Did he leave a note?”

“Nope, not a word. Just did the deed.”

“Then how did the crematorium know to send me his ashes.”

The policeman shrugged.

“Guess he arranged it ahead of time.”

***

A couple of days later, I received an envelope from Joe, dated the day he died. He had stuffed a pile of paper ashes in it—his poems, I assumed. I dumped the ashes in the wastepaper basket.

One day, a few weeks later, a brother with the same severe dark eyes picked up the urn from me, and Joe Archer disappeared from my life forever, except for the recurring dream. In it, he is sitting in my class at a desk much too small for him. He pulls out a revolver from his book bag and points it at me. I want to run but my feet won’t cooperate. Joe pulls the trigger, and I brace for the impact, but nothing happens except a loud click. With a crooked grin, he places the muzzle against his temple and pulls the trigger—another loud click and Joe flinches. He laughs, revealing coffee and tobacco-stained teeth. He points the pistol at me and pulls the trigger again. Click. Joe’s lips move, but I can’t make out the words. He places the muzzle against his temple again and pulls the trigger without hesitation. When nothing happens, he points it at me again. I watch his lips move. Two more, they say, but I can’t hear anything. I realize that I can’t hear what he is saying because of the music playing. It is the score from The Cowboys—a masculine sound as big as the outdoors. I watch his finger depress the trigger—the hammer rears back and slams forward. Nothing happens. Then I see the certainty of death in Joe’s dark eyes. He brings the muzzle to his temple. Don’t do it, I yell, but he can’t hear me over the violins and the orchestra. Fire flies from the revolver, entering Joe’s temple. The music ends abruptly. The report echoes from wall to wall. The left side of Joe’s head explodes like a volcano. I smell the acrid smell of gunpowder and blood. Joe Archer slumps over the desk, his misshapen head leaking onto the floor.

***

I awoke with Gayla shaking me awake. My son stood at my feet between the television and me. In the background, the boys have buried the dead body of Will Anderson and are standing around the grave. “It’s okay,” I told my son’s worried face. “Just a bad dream. That’s all.” He nodded his face as solemn as the boys on the television screen were.

“Come on, Will,” Gayla said. She took his hand and walked out, slamming the door behind her.

It sounded like a gunshot.

 

 

BIO

Jude RoyJude stories have appeared in The Southern Review, American Short Fiction, National Public Radio’s The Sound of Writing, The Fiction Writer, Mysteries and Manners Quarterly, Journal of Kentucky Studies, Mysterical-E, The Riverbend Review, and many others. Jude is originally from Chataignier, LA and currently, teaches writing at Madisonville Community College in Madisonville, KY.

 

 

 

Vincent Mannings

Not Always Easy

by Vincent Mannings

 

In blesséd paradise, here on Earth,
Peaceful now, and free –
My every breath and all my spark
I’d give for her to be.
(Anon., c. 1825, England)

 

“Got it, Dad.” Sam emerged from the garage into the light with the bike in his hands. His father had showered, and his mother had gone out to town. Dad was wearing slacks and a shirt and tie. He sat a few yards from the garage door, at a wicker patio table beneath the kitchen window. He’d just opened the newspaper. There was some iced tea in a glass before him and he was about to eat a good breakfast. “Wonderful,” he replied to his son, folding the paper again and picking up his knife and fork. “I assume you know what you’re doing. I’ve no idea why you’d need two bicycles but the truck’s keys are here whenever you want them.” They were beside the paper and he tapped at them.

“Thanks,” said Sam. He was distracted, gazing at the old bike. He’d propped it on its stand in front of the garage and he was walking around it. He squeezed both grips and tried to push. The brakes were good. Next he pumped the tires and he spent the best part of an hour cleaning off the dust and the spider webs. That bike was kind of rusty. And, it was a guy’s bike. He ran his fingers through his hair, remembering. Mary: she had been wearing overalls a couple of days before, when he’d met her at her garden gate.

By the time he’d driven the six short blocks to Carmelo Street and Lopez he’d decided for sure that he’d be the one who’d be riding his brother’s old bike. He’d be lending his own bike to Mary. She had just now seen him arriving from part-way down her front yard. She’d not been doing much, just touching at her flowers, fussing with them; that and some light watering with a can. She’d been enjoying the morning fog and listening to a digest of the day’s news; a white iPod wire was dangling from her left ear. She’d put the watering-can down when she’d noticed Sam and she’d begun to walk up a gravel path toward the garden gate. Sam had parked the truck at the curb, a black Toyota pickup that his Dad had owned for thirty years. He’d stepped around to the back of the truck and he was beginning to unload the bikes as Mary reached the gate.

She waved, grinning, calling to him, the iPod bud now in her hand: “I do have my own bicycle, you know.”

“I figured,” he replied, turning to face her. He’d felt strong, energized by his busy morning. But when he looked at Mary she surprised him. He almost lost track of what he’d been about to say. “I guessed you’d have your own bike,” he continued, “but I didn’t know for sure and I don’t yet have your number.”

He stopped, and she smiled. She’d opened the gate and had stepped out onto the sidewalk; she seemed tentative and she’d not yet closed the gate behind her. She had on a pair of white shorts and a loose red cotton blouse. No overalls this morning. She was barefoot and she clutched a straw summer hat in her hands; her hair was up, all tamed and pinned. Two days ago, when they’d sat together on a fountain wall, Sam had decided that Mary could not be more beautiful, but she was more beautiful today. He could see the bone structure in her face, the long and graceful neck, the lovely shoulders.

“How is your mother?” he asked.

She turned and glanced behind. She looked down into the mist, across the sloping yard, through the flowers and the shrubs, toward the big front door and quickly at a downstairs window. Her house was on a cliff that overlooked the sea and the pair of them could hear the fog-muffled thumps of waves crashing on the whitesand beach below. Turning back to Sam, she shrugged. “She’s fine. Just a little tired. Like I told you on Wednesday it’s not always easy being descended from writers hoisted by everyone upon such lofty pedestals; it can be difficult and it sure doesn’t always help my mother.”

“Come on, Ms. Mary Shelley,” he said, smiling, “let’s go for a ride.”

The fog had been stubborn but the sun had started to clear it away as he stared at her; patches of blue sky were appearing overhead and the trees near the gate were suddenly a vivid green. He held his bike with his left hand and gestured with his right.

Mary turned her head. She closed the gate and glanced at the house for just a couple seconds more before looking back at Sam. He continued holding the bike for her.

“And I thought maybe we’d get some breakfast,” he added, “if you like: at the Brown Pelican.”

She grinned a second time and walked toward him in her bare feet. She lifted the straw hat above her head and let it dangle behind from a cord around her neck. She was close to him. He could smell perfume and he looked again at the hair.

“I’ll see you at the Pelican,” she said, laughing. She slapped him on the shoulder, threw her left leg around the seat and over the crossbar and set off down Carmelo, changing gear right away to third, and fourth.

“Wait!” yelled Sam. He grabbed his brother’s bike, knocked the stand back with his foot; Mary was already half a block away, still laughing; she shrieked and her hat bounced up and down. “Wait!” he called again, bumping the old bike off the curb. He caught up with her near to Eleventh and rode alongside; she slowed, turning her head to smile. “Hey,” he said, returning the smile and catching his breath. They rode another four blocks south through a tunnel of cherry blossom trees, then swept on past Thirteenth and on to Santa Lucia; there, they turned right and continued a block west; this was steep; it took them down to the beach-road where they turned and headed north for half a block before continuing west toward the sea; a narrow footpath quickly opened up and surrendered to freshly-blown white sand. The tide was out. They stopped, got off their bikes, and listened.

The wind was strong; it whipped about their ears. The waves were distant but they were big and very loud. The fog had gone and the sun was bright. The sea was too loud for talking. Sam glanced at Mary, who closed her eyes with her face toward the waves, enjoying the winds, smiling as she tightened the strap of her straw hat. Her hair began to unravel. She opened her eyes again and looked at him.

“Come on,” she yelled. They walked the bikes up and over the dunes and made straight for the wet sand where they climbed back on and cycled along the edge of the sea. Mary led the way, and the Brown Pelican soon came into view. The place was an old snack-shack, basically a large hexagonal shed. It was Carmel’s take on a Martello fort, perched on the grassy dunes between the beach proper and the beach road, right about where Eleventh Street would have ended if a mansion and a quarter mile of tended rolling lawns had not been in the way. The Pelican had been on those dunes like a sentinel since the early nineteen fifties. It had weathered its share of Pacific storms and, though dilapidated, it possessed some character, honed well by the decades of salt and sand.

They propped the bikes against a low brick wall at the edge of the shack’s parking lot, and Sam bought two coffees and a couple of hot muffins. They were handed to him by a teenaged girl, through a hatch. “Thanks,” he said. He put the change into his wallet, stuffed a dollar bill into a plastic cup, picked up some napkins and sat down with Mary on a small bench at a tiled concrete table. The table was behind a short breeze-wall. They were facing toward the waves.

“So,” Mary announced. She’d shaken down her long black hair and had completed what the wind had started. She’d then lifted the straw hat up from behind her neck and had patted it down hard on her head. She seemed annoyed. “Two days ago you said there’s something you want to tell me.”

Sam hadn’t expected annoyance. He took a sip of his coffee, stalling, and put it back down on the table.

“There is something I want to tell you,” he began. “On my last day in New Mexico, I met with a Professor Ray Wasserman at the Taos Research Institute’s school of medical sciences.”

Mary cut in: “And I suppose he told you everything about my mother.” She’d said it with a casual air, picked up a piece of muffin, popped it in her mouth and washed it down with a gulp of coffee.

“Wasserman told me almost nothing,” said Sam. “That man is rather imperious, Mary. He’s not the chatty type. I was quitting, leaving graduate school after just one year. He’d seemed bored with me, barely listening until I mentioned my parents’ place here in Carmel and that sure got his attention. It jogged his memory. He simply said that he’d known your mother; that she’d been a professor and that she’d resigned from the Institute a long time ago and returned to her family’s old home in Carmel.”

Mary drank some more of her coffee. Now she was the one who was stalling. She put the cup down, reached out and put a hand on Sam’s knee, leaning in a few inches. The brim of her hat came close to his face. “Is that all Wasserman said?” she asked.

“Mary,” replied Sam, peeking beneath the hat. He surprised himself by placing his hand on hers, the one still on his knee. “That old guy gave no details, none at all, but he did suggest your mother had no choice but to leave the Institute. And that’s pretty much all he said to me.”

She slipped the hand away and sat up straight, folding her arms. Sam watched. She seemed to be taking in the information, absorbing it, processing it. The breeze tested her hat. She reached up, absent-mindedly, and pushed it back on. “Sam,” she said. It startled him. “You’ve been very straightforward so it’s my turn to be likewise and I am being straightforward when I tell you that now we both know about as much as each other when it comes to my mother’s career in New Mexico.”

She smiled. He’d no clue why she’d be doing that. In fact she was remembering the book she’d caught him reading a couple of days before, at his Aunt’s bookstore, just a few hours after she’d first met him at her garden gate. “Oh,” she said, “I’ve always known that my mother worked for some time at the Institute, but that was before I was born, and she never says much to me about those years.” She grinned and laughed out loud and touched Sam’s forehead, pretending to read his mind. She dropped her hand and folded her arms again. “Don’t worry,” she said, still laughing, “I never knew my father, and the Shelleys are on my mother’s side, but I have no unexplained stitches. There are no strange wounds and there are definitely no old scars.”

Sam patted her hand.

“Eat your muffin,” she said, “before it gets too cold.” She nodded in the direction of his plate. She’d more on her mind and a few more things to say. “These days, my mother’s just a writer, Sam. That’s pretty much all she does. She leads a quiet life but there’s an obsessiveness about her, and I’m worried.”

Sam had already filled his mouth with food. He held a napkin in one hand and his coffee in the other, about to take a gulp, and he felt silly. Mary saw his concern and she smiled: “Go on, eat,” she said. I’m talking enough for the both of us.” She glanced at the beach, giving him some time, and looked back. He was drinking. “Sam, I think my mother’s sick. I know this isn’t your problem; it’s for me to deal with but there’s something wrong with her. Whatever burden my mother carried when she was a professor, she sure as hell brought with her to Carmel. Something’s changed since then. It’s evolved, I suppose.” She smiled suddenly, trying to lighten things again. “I’ll figure it out.”

Sam drank the rest of his coffee. He remained quiet for several minutes. Mary had stopped talking. Sam already liked her. How could he not? All of his instincts told him to dive right in, to tell her how much he wanted to help. But his head told him the opposite and, being Sam, he settled for something in between.

“I’m going up the road to Santa Cruz,” he said, “this afternoon, to the campus: I’ve arranged to meet with a couple of English professors; someone called Seth Morton, and another named Wintour; Professor Jonathan Wintour.”

Mary flinched. He saw it. She recovered quickly.

“If you’re talking with Wintour, that’s good.” She’d said it with her mouth close to his ear, almost a whisper. “You’re your own man.” She sat back again. He looked at her. A teardrop was making its way down her right cheek. At last he heeded the smart voice that’d been lodged somewhere deep inside his head. He shut his mouth and he said nothing. He touched her hand and shuffled in closer before putting his arm around her. She leaned her head on his shoulder and he felt her hair brush against his face.

Suddenly, she got up. She collected their cups and went to the Pelican’s hatch. “Two refills, please,” she said to the girl, “and may I borrow a pen?”

Sitting down with new coffees she scribbled something on the receipt she’d been given and passed it to Sam: her phone number. Her eyes were still watery but she felt better. She’d put the iPod bud back into her ear and she flashed a smile that almost stopped Sam’s heart.

“Okay,” he said, as coolly as he could muster before storing the receipt in his wallet. He took the pen from her hand, wrote his own number on their sole remaining napkin and gave that back to her. “Hey,” he said, smiling: “Mom and Dad are having a garden party tomorrow. My brother and his family are settling back in town. You want to join us?”

 

* * *

 

By noon he’d showered a second time. He’d also brushed back his wet hair and had changed into some brown loafers, a pair of khaki slacks, a white button shirt and a beige linen jacket. The jacket was on the passenger seat beside him as he drove his Dad’s truck forty miles north around the bay to Santa Cruz.

Seth Morton turned out to be Dean of the School of Letters. Sam found himself being ushered from a reception desk to a wood-paneled waiting room by a tall and very direct executive assistant. “Professor Morton will be with you presently.” She’d said it just before turning on her heels. The door closed and Sam sat alone for ten minutes on a leather chair, gripping a saucer and a white china cup. That cup contained a pale herbal tea that he never once touched. He’d said “yes” when asked but it’d been from politeness only and he felt ridiculous, holding onto the cup and saucer. But he also worried he’d seem ungrateful if he just set them down on the table in front of him. He crossed his legs, the cup rattling. Slowly, he began to relax. A grandfather clock stood in one corner of the room. The tick was loud. He could see the pendulum swinging, hypnotic, soothing after the busy morning, and it lured him to a peaceful place before shattering his calm with a single great chime. One o’clock: the doors to an office suite swung open and Morton burst in.

Hello!”

The big voice flash-flooded the room. Morton was stocky, energetic, every bit the square-jawed man that Sam had seen on his website’s picture. He strode across the carpet. Sam put the cup down at last, too quickly. He’d done it as he rose from his chair, and he slopped tea into the saucer and onto his pants; it also got onto his hands and he wiped them on his jacket as Morton got up close.

“So you’re Sam Robertson! A pleasure to meet you. We’ll have you with our Romantics aficionado very soon!” Morton chuckled. He’d seen the mishap and, the chuckles done, shot out his right hand. The arm was firm and steady. Sam shook the strong hand. Already the blushing began. He’d expected to be led next into Morton’s suite but was instead rotated one hundred and eighty degrees by the professor’s left hand; together, they left the waiting room and stepped into the hall.

“This way,” said Morton. His right forefinger pointed at the corridor. They hurried along a tiled floor. Morton glanced at a wall clock, turned a corner and passed another secretary.

“Jonathan here?” The tone seemed sharp. Before the lady could begin to answer, Sam was being led into Wintour’s office where a middle-aged professor stood behind a desk.

“Jonathan: please meet the young man I mentioned.”

With that, Morton nodded at the both of them, made eye contact with Sam for a final time and left.

Wintour continued to stand behind his desk. He watched Sam. His expression seemed kind. He said nothing, so Sam tried first:

“Robertson, sir. Sam Robertson.” Sam took a deep breath and tried to calm himself, looking all around the room. The entire building was old and this room’s ceiling was very high. The office was large though rather cramped, and it was dark. In addition to the desk there were several tables laden with books and papers; heavy bookcases were against each of the walls and, a good six feet up the wall behind Wintour, a single small window. Sam touched at the collar of his shirt and held out his hand. He held it firm and steady, just like he’d seen Morton do it. But Wintour was no Morton. He removed the jacket he’d been wearing and came around the desk to greet Sam with a two-handed shake and a warm smile. A genial man; the eyes were bright and enthusiastic. His hair was gray and his face was pale from too much time in that gloomy room. Sam saw engagement but no trace of arrogance: the man seemed secure, happy in his own skin, with nothing to prove. Wintour scratched his head. He was trying to remember. He closed the office door and showed Sam to a seat across from his desk before settling with a contented sigh back into his leather swivel chair.

“Seth told me you’d inquired about Mary Shelley.” He clapped his hands, swung around in his seat and pointed to a coffeemaker.

Sam really did not want coffee but again for the sake of being polite he nodded.

Wintour snatched a couple of pods from a basket. He set about the brewing with his back to Sam, lifting his head and calling over his shoulder. “Seth also told me you’re from Carmel. Now!” – and he clapped his hands a second time – “would your being here today have anything to do with the Carmel Shelleys?”

Sam felt blindsided. He’d lived most of his life in Carmel without knowing anything at all about the residents of a house on Carmelo Street just six blocks from his home, and here he sat today with a professor who knew about both Mary and her mother.

Wintour continued, still calling across his shoulder: “I had the privilege of meeting those two fine ladies. Met them five years ago, not long after I began my tenure here.”

Sam leaned forward in his chair. “As a matter of fact, sir, I am here today because of them; because of one of them, at least: I’ve come to know the daughter.”

Wintour stopped fiddling with the coffee machine and turned back to Sam. “And now you want to know if those two are for real?” he asked with a mischievous smile. “Initially, as far as I could tell, that seemed to be the reason the mother wanted to see me. A fascinating woman. Extremely intelligent and very serious. Looked the part too, I can tell you. She was somewhat vague as to why she needed my help with her ancestry; she referred to a ‘disappointment’ but she never elaborated. She visited twice, the first time alone, the second time with her daughter. The younger Mary: well, she was just a teenager when I saw her and she was quiet, rather uncomfortable I thought.”

The coffee machine clicked and hissed. Wintour removed the first cup, swapped the pod and began the second brew. He got up and opened a small fridge below the high window and took out a carton of skimmed milk.

“I don’t have very long today, Sam, but I do have time to tell you what I know. It’s not particularly confidential; public record, really.”

Within a couple of minutes they were both relaxing in their chairs. Sam took a few sociable sips from his cup, and listened. Like Sam, the professor had drawn a blank when he’d searched online. “After that,” he said, “I enlisted the help of a former colleague, a chap I’d known during my previous position, at New York University. That colleague is married to a professional genealogist, a delightful and very sharp young woman named Annabel Stark. If you’re casting about for a career, Sam, do consider genealogy. I found it can be a most lucrative profession. Her clients tend to be the wealthy and the established; the Hamptons set; patrician types who are keen to prove that their blood is blue. Annabel took a third of my research account that year but I was of course intrigued. Absolutely astonished. Shelleys! Just forty miles from this office! Could it really be? You know exactly what I mean, huh?” He glanced at a clock on his desk and looked back at Sam. “Young man, I can tell you that my rather expensive genealogist did a very thorough job. The Carmel Shelleys are indeed descended from Mary Shelley: the Mary Shelley, that is. In fact there are three different lines they could have come along and still been her fourth- and fifth-generation descendants. And, it turns out, that’s exactly who they are. That’s all good of course but when the mother came back to discover what I’d learned, this time with her daughter, I realized that I’d wasted my money. Completely wasted it.”

Sam was confused. “Sir, but you said -”

Wintour broke in. “First, it became obvious the older Shelley was already quite sure of her ancestry. I’d merely affirmed it for her and I could sense that she’d not really been listening. My words seemed intended more for the ears of the young lady accompanying her. Second, well, here, take a look at this.”

He got up and walked over to the bookcase against the wall to the right of his desk. He reached, grunting, and pulled out a very large hardcover. Next he came round to Sam and slapped the book down on the desk in front of them. Sam looked at Wintour, took off his jacket and opened the huge book. He turned the pages slowly. Between long sections of dense text he saw photographs of birth certificates; they were for Byron, for Percy Shelley, and for Mary; he also saw facsimiles of the title pages from anthologies of poetry; there were maps of London, of Venice and of the shoreline of Lake Geneva; he saw gravestones in England and on the Continent; there were pictures of locks of hair; a funeral pyre in Italy; he saw museums and he gazed at portraits of Byron’s mistresses and, oval and tiny, portraits of the Shelley children. Sam lost himself in the pages as he turned from one to the next, first near to the front of the book, then at the back, then in the middle.

Wintour became impatient. “Page thirty-six, Sam. Please look at page thirty-six.”

Sam, slipping back into the role of the student, looked up again at the professor, who seemed fatherly, almost concerned. He turned again to the book in front of him and he followed Wintour’s instruction. The entirety of page thirty-six was a large color-plate reproduction of an oil painting from the archives of the National Portrait Gallery in London. Sam was looking at Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin. She was eighteen years old, one year before she married Percy Shelley in 1816, and she would have been pregnant by him for a second time. The painting was all dark tones. Mary was seated on a plum-colored couch, the wall behind her unlit. She was visible only from the chest up. She wore a black dress. Her shoulders were bare and her long dark hair framed a sad and serious face. This beautiful lady didn’t just resemble the young woman with whom Sam had shared breakfast at the beach shack that morning; she looked precisely like her. Sam forgot all about Wintour now and he stared at the picture. His heart raced, but gradually he became calm again. He reached out with his hand. His movements were slow and he touched the color plate, running his finger across it; in his mind he changed the mournful clothes into something bright; he brushed the soft and lovely hair back from the young lady’s face; gently, he slipped an iPod bud into her ear; and he saw her smile.

 

 

BIO

Vincent ManningsAlthough Vincent Mannings is American, he was born in Liverpool, England, and was raised in Cheshire by Irish parents. Twenty years ago, he moved from London to Pasadena, where he’s lucky enough to live with his wife, Helene. He has a Ph.D. in an arcane discipline, and he works at the California Institute of Technology.

Vincent has edited a textbook, published by the University of Arizona Press. He’s also recently completed a couple of novels and is about to brace himself and try to get them published.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mary Taugher

Crow on the Cradle

by Mary Taugher

 

Whenever someone enters the tiny curtained space where they’ve wheeled my gurney, I ask if Mr. Ramsey is alive. Is he in surgery, in a coma, dead? Either the ER nurses don’t know or they won’t give me an answer. They’ve dimmed the overhead lights, plugged an IV in the crook of my arm, and clamped a sensor on my finger. The jagged lines of my heartbeat zigzag across the monitor’s screen, and its bleeps overlay the noises of the emergency room. A nurse or doctor, I don’t remember which, told me I’m in shock and that I might have suffered a concussion. But I know I haven’t. I didn’t hit my head, the airbag didn’t even inflate when I hit Mr. Ramsey.

On the other side of a curtain a man calls out to the nurses to find him an electric shaver. Shave me smooth before I die, he moans. I try to tune him out. I curl into a fetal position, worrying about why my husband is taking so long to get here and whether he knows the pedestrian I hit is Mr. Ramsey.

It happened so fast. I remember the glare of the late afternoon sun. A man jogging toward me in the bicycle lane. Wisps of fog, jazz on the car radio. Then my vertigo returns so violently that I spin like a ragdoll in a washing machine, and I realize the jogger is Mr. Ramsey, whom I’ve seen a half dozen times in the past running this same path.

My dashboard, the pavement, the canopy of red flowering trees – it all swirls. Then everything collides into a nauseous blur until I see him inches from my front end. Mr. Ramsey, the man I loathe. I stomp on the brakes, yank the steering wheel. Which way? I can’t remember. The SUV lurches. Impact. God, the sound. A terrible thud reverberating through my body. My front right tire bumping over the curb.

It was an accident, a bizarre coincidence. I remember telling myself this as I sat trembling in my SUV. I don’t remember calling 911. I don’t remember climbing out of it. Next thing I know Mr. Ramsey’s head is in my lap. He’s unconscious. Sirens echo in my head, still spinning from the vertigo. My heart thumps wildly. And Mr. Ramsey’s legs, they’re twisted at unnatural angles, his shirt torn, a gash above his hip oozing blood. It’s the last thing I see before blacking out.

 

I was working at home from the third floor of our condo this morning, putting the finishing touches on a landscaping design before handing it off to the gardening company, when the vertigo first started. A loud cry, a hoarse gronk-gronk, startled me and I looked out my window to see a raven the size of a shoebox swooping down toward me. Tracking the raven, I felt a pull, a yanking really, in my forehead, and the room began to spin.

I squeezed my eyes shut. The sunlight from the window caused a blotchy afterimage of the bird and a fragment of a song about a crow on a cradle tumbled into my mind. I could hear the Irish folksinger’s voice, wistful and ethereal, as clearly as I had heard it so often at my friend Eileen’s house when our girls were young. The verse was about a baby’s birth, and the prophecy that if it were a girl, she would have rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, but that a shadow would trail her wherever she goes.

Spells of vertigo, from ear infections and high altitude, have hit me in the past so I wasn’t too alarmed. The verse, looping and insistent in my head, worried me more. I knew I needed to distract myself, so I used a cognitive-behavioral technique I’d picked up years ago. I got up from my desk and walked to my bathroom to count the shower floor tiles. After I’d counted to seventy-three, the song vanished.

Not long after, I took a break to walk down to the corner deli for lunch with my daughter. But as soon as we stepped outside I became woozy again. Christ, I said, grabbing her arm, I’m so dizzy it feels like the ground’s vibrating.

Earthquake’s in your head, Mom, she said, giving me a look of irritation.

The vertigo stopped seconds after I grabbed her, maybe because I was happy to be holding her arm, happy for any excuse to touch her. For nearly two years, my daughter had been depressed and sullen, in and out of therapy, off and on meds. In part, I blamed myself. My genes.

Earlier in the morning, I’d found her on the living room couch. It was six o’clock, way too early to be awake for someone her age, sixteen, and she told me she’d barely slept, couldn’t get back to sleep when she woke before dawn, couldn’t remember what it was like to sleep through an entire night or even three or fours hours at a stretch. She looked so sad telling me this. Her cheeks were flushed, and I flashed back to a day long ago, her cheeks glowing, her smile irrepressible as she accepted a gold medallion attached to a green ribbon for first place in the reel competition at an Irish feis.

I bit the inside of my lower lip, hard, until it hurt, then asked the question I knew I had to ask. Honey, you wouldn’t do anything to hurt yourself would you? You would tell me, right, wouldn’t you?

She shook her head yes and said, I’m okay, Mom, don’t worry about me.

I wondered if I’d ever stop worrying that she might harm herself. But what mother wouldn’t worry about a depressed teenage daughter, especially one who had skipped third grade and was young for her class, who had spent three and half years immersed in the culture of a high school where every year for the past six years a student had committed suicide, and who had left that school seven weeks ago, distraught and humiliated, to finish up her senior year at home in independent study.

When we entered the deli, I nearly fainted. I grabbed my daughter’s waist.

What is your problem? she snapped.

I’m dizzy again, I said.

Well then sit, she said, as if talking to a dog.

The deli owner, a Lebanese man named Sam, with coal black eyes and teeth so white and perfect they must have been capped, came from around the counter to ask if I was okay. Touching his forearm, I thanked him for his concern. I gave my daughter a twenty to buy lunch and by time she came back to the table with our salads, I was feeling better.

An hour later we went to family therapy. While we waited in the office, my husband scrolled through his phone, I flicked through trashy magazines, and my daughter stared as if hypnotized at a potted plant. And then, the damn song about the crow on the cradle snuck back into my head.

Stop, I told myself, wishing for the millionth time that I could overcome my anxieties. To calm myself, I employed another cognitive-behavioral trick that involves replacing an obsessive thought with a sensation that overpowers it.

I keep Altoids, the spearmint flavor, in my purse for just this purpose. I found a single one left in the tin box and popped it in my mouth. The taste at the core, stringent, almost medicinal, makes my mouth water with distaste and longing, opposing sensations that I suppose stretch back to my childhood when my beloved father gave me spearmint flavored mints, once after he’d disciplined me with a belt that left a row of welts on the back of my legs. You could argue that I was replacing one negative thought with another, but the overpowering effect of those mints was the handiest thing I could keep in my purse and certainly less harmful than a cigarette or a finger-pricking pin.

Dr. Mueller, a transplanted New Yorker with a mustache, barrel of a stomach and diamond stud in his right ear, didn’t keep us waiting long, and the four of us settled into his deep-cushioned, black pleather chairs and footstools.

We started family therapy because of what happened to my daughter. Nothing in her daughter’s history prepared us, but I suppose life unfolds like that, unexpectedly you round a corner of your life and bang: your mother dies or you lose your life savings. Or your daughter has sex with her teacher, Mr. Ramsey.

And not just once but multiple times, in multiple places, in classrooms and supply closets, in motels, in his Volvo wagon. Perhaps even in his home. Mr. Ramsey lives less than a mile from us.

A charismatic teacher, he taught at the high school for twenty years, right up until he was arrested, charged and released on bail. He’s my age, forty-six, with three children. It makes me nauseous if I pause too long to think about it. I mean the fact that this father, this teacher, sexually abused my daughter — and the fact, too, that his children may now be fatherless.

Family therapy didn’t start well that day. Dr. Mueller seemed distracted and my daughter refused to answer any questions with anything other than “I don’t know” or “maybe.”

My husband admitted that he’d wanted to do “bodily harm” to Mr. Ramsey, but had mastered the “ugliness” of the situation. The women in his life needed help, he said, and he was here for us, to help us deal with “our” guilt and sorrow, “our” anger and humiliation.

Ticked off by his above-it-all attitude, I scolded my husband, told him he’d bailed out on us, that all he ever did lately was immerse himself in his busy, busy work, that he might as well have a leash around his neck for all the time he spent attached to his computer.

Why are you yelling at me? he asked.

I turned to my daughter to gauge her reaction or to look for her solidarity, I’m not sure which, and was stricken by her expression.

A twisted smile. It might have been a nervous smile but, God help me, what flicked through my mind was sadistic smile. She was gloating.

Christ, I cried. Why are you smiling like that? Do you think this conversation is funny?

Maybe, I don’t know, she said.

I squeezed the arms of the chair, clenched my jaw. My daughter crossed her arms, still smiling. My husband cleared his throat. Dr. Mueller pulled on his ear and twisted the diamond stud, waiting like therapists do for the dynamics to play themselves out.

Babe, calm down, my husband said. I admit I’ve been a detached. It’s hard. Hard for all of us. We’ll get through it.

Say something, I said to my daughter.

She shrugged her shoulders, poked the tip of her tongue between her lips and licked her upper lip. A wave, no, a tsunami of vertigo washed over me. I leaned forward, put my head between my knees. I could hear my daughter fidgeting, the sound of her bare legs rubbing against the pleather chair.

Vertigo again? my husband asked.

He turned to Dr. Mueller and said, She’s had several episodes today.

It could be stress, Dr. Mueller said. But see a doctor if it doesn’t go away by tomorrow. I’ll get a glass of water.

I righted myself. The room gyrated. The back of my shirt was wet with sweat. My husband reached over to rub my back. Just as Dr. Mueller re-entered the room with the water, my daughter started laughing. She covered her mouth with both hands, but couldn’t stop.

You’re laughing because you’re uncomfortable, Dr. Mueller said. He handed me the glass of water and sat down. Perhaps you’re angry too, as angry as your mother. Tell us what you’re angry about.

No, no, my daughter said. I’m not upset. I’m relieved.

I took a sip of water. The vertigo had receded but I felt faint. My daughter curled her lips into a sneer again and locked her eyes on mine.

Get that snide smile off your face, I snapped at her.

She clamped her lips shut, and I could tell she was biting the insides of her cheeks as I sometimes do. Then she relaxed her jaw and slumped in her seat. With contempt embedded in her voice, she said, I’ll never be like you. That’s why I fucked Mr. Ramsey. I never want to be like you. I will kill myself if I ever become like you. I hate you.

Her words knocked my breath away. I couldn’t, wouldn’t believe what she was saying. I saw her little-girl self sitting on my lap, twisting the cloth carrot I’d sewn back on her blue-jacketed bunny, her face nuzzling the space just beneath my breastbone as she described why I was the best Mommy in the world.

My husband looked stunned. Dr. Mueller waited for one of us to speak. The silence hung over us like a dark holographic presence until my daughter broke it.

Your turn to say something, she said to me. But you’re probably afraid. You’re always afraid, always worrying about something. Afraid of heights, of flying. Dr. Mueller, do you know she has to down a scotch and a couple of Xanax before we leave for the airport?

Dr. Mueller looked at his watch and said, I want to talk about the comment you made earlier, about having intercourse with your teacher because you didn’t want to be like your mother.

I didn’t say intercourse, my daughter said. I said, fucked.

And you said you hated your mother.

This is stupid.

What do you mean?

What do you think? This. Family therapy. All we ever do is talk about me. I try to talk about my mom and her wacko problems, and you bring it back to me. Fuck it.

With that my daughter jumped out of her chair and stormed out of the room. We’d already gone beyond our time, and Dr. Mueller had another patient waiting, so we agreed to revisit her disturbing disclosure at our next session.

 

On the drive back, we were quiet, polite, distant. On the bridge, I counted sailboats to shove my daughter’s ugly words from my mind. When got home, my daughter ran up to her room. I told my husband I needed to unwind, that I was going to go to the YMCA for a yoga class. He offered to drive me, a conciliatory gesture I appreciated but didn’t accept.

What about your vertigo?

I’ll pull over if it happens again, I assured him.

Yoga relaxed me. Lying there on my mat under the gently whirring fans in the waning light of the afternoon, the eucalyptus trees swaying in the high windows of the studio as the instructor’s melodious voice guided us, I felt my limbs loosening, my legs twitching, as if I were about to drift off to sleep. My breathing was slow and expansive.

Afterwards, as I rolled up my mat, a woman I knew came up to me. Our children had been in the same class in grade school, but I saw her these days only at the Y or grocery store. She couldn’t wait to tell me which college her daughter had been accepted to, ranked seventh in the latest U.S. News and World report. She barely paused for my response before asking in a hushed tone about my daughter.

How is she coping? It must be so difficult for you. If there is anything, anything at all I can do, please call.

Please call, I repeated.

I meant to voice my disbelief that she would under any circumstance expect that I might call her to lean on, but my voice came out like a mimicking parrot. I felt my face flush. Slapping her crossed my mind, but instead I ran out of the yoga studio.

Walking across the parking lot, I felt pressure clamp my head like a vise being screwed tighter and tighter. Within seconds I was woozy. The parking lot’s black-topped surface bounced like a trampoline. I stopped to lean on the bumper of a car, and started when someone spoke my name. The yoga instructor was standing beside me, asking me if I felt ill.

Vertigo, I told her. I’ll be okay in a minute.

The instructor suggested that I return to the gym and call someone for a ride home. But the dizziness seemed to be subsiding, so I told her I’d wait in the car for ten minutes. I thanked her and promised to call someone if the vertigo didn’t go away.

 

My memory is fuzzy. I must have arrived here in an ambulance. I cannot remember much until the detective came into my curtained cubicle. My adrenaline kicked in. She wasn’t wearing a uniform, but I knew right away who she was. She had an air of authority twinned with weariness. She’d heard it all. All the versions people conjure of their own reality.

We didn’t talk long. A nurse shooed her away. I wish now I’d feigned a concussion. Except for the vertigo, I’m not sure exactly what I told her, how I worded things. You need to be precise, cautious in a situation like this.

 

My husband leans over me. I reach up to touch his face. His hair is graying near his ears and at his temple. I squeeze his hand.

It was an accident, I tell my husband.

Quiet. Don’t say another word. The doctor says you’re in shock. It was the vertigo, wasn’t it? I should have driven you, damn it. You’re going to be fine. I’ve called an attorney.

Is Mr. Ramsey —

Shhh, it wasn’t your fault, my husband says, and I can tell by his hesitant tone that Mr. Ramsey is dead. An arrow of fear flits through me, but that’s all, just a single dart, and I wonder idly why I’m not more frightened by the idea that I’ve killed a man.

Don’t talk, my husband says. Just rest now. What are they giving you? Do you need more painkillers? Have they given you a sedative?

No, where is -–

She’s in the waiting room.

How is she? Is she all right? You shouldn’t leave her.

Babe, calm down, my husband says, your sister is with her.

He strokes my forehead.

I ask him if my purse is in the room. I need an Altoid. He finds my purse and rifles through it, but the tin box is empty. Please, please find me an Altoid, I tell him.

Alone, it comes back to me, like a missing link I didn’t know I was searching for. I remember now what I felt when I saw Mr. Ramsey and became dizzy. I can only describe it as a controlled rage. I didn’t mean to kill him.

My heart rate judders rapidly across the monitor, and I watch it as if from a great distance. I feel as though my years of practicing coping strategies has culminated in this moment, in this decision: I put my terrible revelation in a small box and seal it with packing tape, winding the tape around and around the box until I’m satisfied that it will never come undone, and then I shove that box into the furthest corner of our attic. All these years of therapy I’ve been told that denial doesn’t work, but I know with every deep breath I take, watching the monitor as my heart rate calms, that I will never open this box again.

I prop myself up on the gurney and wait for my husband to return. But when the curtains part it’s my daughter. She’s been crying.

Mom, are you okay? she asks. Have you heard anything about Mr. Ramsey? I can’t believe it was him that you hit. Mom, I –

My daughter pauses. Stares open mouthed at me.

Why are you looking at me like that?

Everything is going to be okay, I say.

I want to tell her that she’ll never have to worry about that damn crow, but I know she’ll think I’m crazy, so I give her a wider, reassuring grin.

She takes a step back from me. Stop it, she says. Stop smiling at me like that.

I clamp my lips together, curling them inside and over my teeth. Then I close my eyes, concentrate on my counting. I count the people who can attest to my vertigo. One … Sam, the deli owner. Two … Dr. Mueller. Three … the yoga instructor. Four … my husband. Five … my daughter. She didn’t mean what she said in Dr. Mueller’s office. She loves me, and someday, maybe when she’s a mother, she’ll realize how fiercely I love her.

 

 

BIO

Mary TaugherMary Taugher is a graduate of the MFA creative writing program at San Francisco State University. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Transfer, Instant City, 580 Split, Prick of the Spindle. She was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2009 Short-Story Award for New Writers contest.

My Grandfather is a Pilot

by Tommy Dean

 

He only flies on the weekends and since my girlfriend left me, my grandfather and I have been flying around the world. He always calls me on Thursday, and asks me, “Are you ready for your lesson?” to which I usually reply, “Just until I find something better to do.” He laughs and I can usually hear the tinkling sound of ice against his glass as he stirs another Bloody Mary. Chelsea didn’t break up with me to go out with a football player, because I used to be that guy. No, she broke up with me to start dating the trombone player. A senior, with a promising career and a scholarship to Notre Dame. Whenever I say Chelsea’s name around my grandfather he takes a long drink of his Bloody Mary and says, “Women,” as if that’s all there is to say about the subject. Both of his wives died, he reminds me, so he’s never felt that kind of heartache. Then he smacks his lips and winks. The pictures, both black and white and color in dusty frames tell me otherwise. I spot them all over the small house: the back of the toilet, the end table next to the recliner reserved for guests, and several next to the computer.

Saturday night, I pull into my grandfather’s driveway. My parents’ only let me drive in a forty mile radius and I have to call or text them when I get to my destination. I’m here, I type, close the app, and then open it back up to add a smiley face. I don’t feel all that happy, but it’s part of the illusion I’ve quietly agreed to continue with my family. I could sit here and listen to the engine settle and cool, but my grandfather gets anxious when cars pull in and no one gets out in like the first five minutes. Once, I sat there fighting with Chelsea on the phone and he came out with a pistol in his hand. When he confirmed it was me, he put it in the waistband of his jeans and waited for me to get out of the car.

“Jesus, Gramps.”

“I was just confirming it was you,” he said, a wrinkled smile breaking across his face.

“What if it wasn’t me?”

“Depends on who it was.”

There was more to his life, moments in his youth he never talked about, though I never asked either. Over the years, I’d heard mention, from the distracted and broken off conversations of my parents, of pool halls and bars. My father, an accountant, who had no sense of adventure, even in movies, shook his head when I told him about the gun. “That man’s always been a fighter. You get a chance, Joel, take a look at his knuckles.” “Oh, and don’t tell your mother.”

It feels like there is a lot we’re not telling my mother right now. My father thinks it’ll be easier if she finds out later. “When the dirt settles?” I ask more and more. All he can do is nod and grip my shoulder.

I walk up the sidewalk, concentrating on each step, willing my feet to do as they’re told, marveling at the condition of the concrete. The house was built in the late 40s, but you wouldn’t know it from all of the maintenance my grandfather does every year. The porch light is on, and though it’s a summer night the wind through the breezeway is cold and if I had any hair left, I’d surely have been wiping it out of my face. They say it won’t grow back this time.

I knock and wait for him to answer. From inside, the floorboards creak under his weight and there is the rustle of locks being undone. Light spills from the kitchen around the broad shape of my grandfather as he peers through the screen in the storm door.

“I guess the raccoons have learned how to knock.”

“You’d probably treat them better than your grandkids,” I say.

“Hell, it’d be a lot easier. Throw them a few scraps and they’d be on their way. I suppose you want to come in?”

The house is small; a three bedroom with less than twelve hundred square feet. How my father lived here with three other siblings I’ll never know. Except somehow they all survived the closeness that small houses bring. The kind of closeness that develops into fights and the sharing of colds and accusations, the kind of hurts that bond a family together though they never tend to see each other except for the holidays.

The linoleum in the kitchen has yellowed and is peeling underneath the table, which in a larger house would have fit nicely in a dining room. Here it sags underneath the weight of mail and old Coca-Cola bottles that my grandfather collects. When he’s not flying the plane, he sits at the table and rubs away the dust and grime that comes from years of neglect. I often wonder if we all couldn’t use a gentle twist or flap of a rag, something to shine us up before we go out into the world. Though I’m sure some of us wouldn’t prefer it. Our bodies chipped and stained, the ugliness of light reflected through glass, vulnerable to another crack when we’ve been mishandled or thrown against the pavement.

My grandpa leads us through the kitchen into a short open space offset between the kitchen and the living room. He walks slower than normal, his hands, usually in his pockets, are out at his sides poised to catch himself should he suddenly lose his balance. His hair too, seems to have thinned since I’ve last seen him. He falls more than sits in the desk chair.

“Getting old isn’t for sissies,” he says.

I stand there looking down at him. His hands gripping the armrests as though he’s afraid he’ll fall right through the seat.

“What the hell are you looking at?” he asks, his voice weak at first, but filled with piss and vinegar at the end. A phrase he taught me when I was four, at a Fourth of July parade. I remember the look of horror on my mom’s face while I ran around in circles, shouting “piss and vinegar, piss and vinegar.”

“You need a hat. A pilot’s with the wings stitched into the middle.”

“What for?”

“You know, to make it official.”

“Nah, that’d make it too real. Then I’d feel bad flying with one of these.” He picked up the sweating highball (another word he taught me) and took a swallow of the red juice. The vodka concealed by the color, but no one that knew my grandfather was ever fooled.

I take a seat in the creaky, wooden dining room chair that sits to the left of the office chair. When we first started our routine, I carry the chair back at the end of each visit, but now I’m too weak to protest, so it sits there every weekday night waiting for my return. I’m sure it bothers him to snake around the damn thing every night when goes to check his email, but he’s never said a word.

My grandpa pecks at the keyboard and images of his first wife vanish from the screen. Other pictures take her place, and I’m surprised by the chronology: second wife (my grandmother crocheting prior to the MS), their children (my dad with long hair and buck teeth), and then shots of my two sisters and I aging from infants to teenagers and all of the awkwardness in between. His life flashes onto and off the screen in seconds. The computer fan whirs and a life that’s just about out of gas passes away back into a binary plasma until they’re called back to the screen again.

Against the wall, next to the computer is an old roll-top desk covered in picture frames. I had attributed these remnants of the past to my grandmother’s sense of decorating, but she’s been gone for several years and still the frames remain. They make the house feel smaller as if it’s full of life, while my parents home seems devoid of pictures as if they would take up too much space. I’ve overheard my mother comment to my father that she likes clean, sharp lines.

I grab one of the frames and wipe my finger around the corners. When I look at my finger I expect to see a smudge of dust, but there’s nothing there but the whorls of my fingerprint. It reminds me of a time when I was younger when I was active in Cub Scouts and our group leader took us down to the local police station to have all of us fingerprinted. It satisfied the requirements of one of the badges, though I no longer had the stoll they were collected on. The cop was fat with smelly breath that leaked out of a mouth covered by the wisps of a half-grown mustache. His face was so round, his hair buzzed tight to his scalp, it could have used the extra hair to give his features some kind of definition. His head looked like a watermelon perched atop human shoulders. I wondered if he got punched a lot. A face like that was just asking to be pummeled. He took my wrist roughly and pushed my thumb into the ink pad, rolling it right and left as if I didn’t have any motor control, as if I were a doll, a thing he could fling around as he chose. He made a big deal about telling us, six boys under the age of thirteen, that the fingerprints would help the police find us if we were ever taken. Alive? I wanted to ask, but didn’t because I didn’t want him to remember me. I kept thinking about the record they now had of my prints, how they’d now be a part of the national database, where if I should ever commit a crime they’d be able to link me to the crime scene. Now I didn’t plan on committing any crimes not then, and not now, but I didn’t like the thought of them having everything they needed. And I’d given it to them willingly.

My grandpa sighs as he repositions himself in the leather office chair. He tabs at the keyboard and the flight simulator comes onto the screen. The rattle of a large engine blares from the speakers that sit next to the bulky rear-projection monitor.

“I know it’s your turn to pick the destination, but I’d like to have another turn. You don’t mind, do you?” he asks, his eyebrows raised, as if this is an honest question, when we both know that I don’t care where we go. Even when I do pick a place, it’s only to make him happy and through his gentle suggestions.

“Like Hell,” I say, because that’s how we talk to each other. A couple of old men, who should have seen better days, but they never really materialized.

“”Good, because there’s a flight I’ve always wanted to pilot and I think today is the day.”

“Just tell me that we’re not going to Europe again, because that took forever. And you were definitely over your limit that night.

“That’s why I’ve got my copilot.” he squeezes my neck, but the pressure seems weaker than usual.

“My captain, my captain, where are we headed?”

“Boston to California, my good lad.”

“And our mood tonight? Cherished memory or shameful regret?”

He takes a long drink of his Bloody Mary–his father’s drink. “Oh a little of both, I’m afraid. It’s the measure of life.”

“Just as long as we can land the thing this time. That airport in Fiji was unreal. Who plops an airport down between the ocean and a mountain? I can’t believe people really fly there.”

“I don’t think we’ll have to worry about the landing this time.”

“Fine. Then move over old man and pass me that keyboard. I’ll take her up to cruising altitude.”

He rocked his chair to the right and slid the keyboard closer toward my waiting hands. I moved my fingers expectantly like a Jazz pianist. Tap, Tap. The keys responded to my poking and the plane on the screen rattled to life. The pilot avatar, with only his hands showing, since the camera in the game was slotted for first person point of view, pushed the speed lever forward and the camera switched to the outside of the plane where it taxied faster down the runway. The number on the tail of the plane was 73. I tapped a key and the camera focused back on the cockpit. The simulator was actually pretty easy to play in that it only took a few taps of the keys to get the plane up into the air and cruising along. Like most kids my age, I enjoyed more complex and violent games, but the one time that I tried one of these games with my grandfather he almost broke my controller by throwing it at the ground. He had stomped out of the room and refused to return until I had got the goddamn thing off the screen.

I pivot the camera from cockpit, to the engines, to the tail, and then to the interior where usually there were pixelated people stretched out across the seats. In this flight, there were two lone avatars sitting in the front close to the cockpit door. The graphics aren’t up-to-date, so the two figures look too much like cartoons compared to the newer games that were made for the latest gaming consoles. I flip through row after row until I get to the front and I notice that the figures match our likenesses. A few months back, as a joke, we had made ourselves using the limited character building options. I looked more like a kindergartener than a sophomore in high school and my Grandfather had really large biceps, which he assured me he used to have in his own youth. I didn’t remember ever actually adding them to the passenger list before tonight though.

“Where’s the rest of the passengers?”

“Check the Flight List, Co-pilot.”

A few clicks of the mouse takes me away from the interior of the plane and to a screen with a list of the passengers. My grandfather and I are the only names on the list.

“Where are all the other fake people? Donny, the accountant with the drinking problem, and Celeste, who is thinking about running away from her family?” Sometimes we make up fake backstories for the other avatar passengers. It’s our way of living different lives I guess, though sometimes I wonder if I’ve lived enough of my own to know that someone’s else’s life might be better. I’m just starting, I want to tell God or the universe, whoever is control.

“We’re flying solo, bud. I didn’t want anyone else on this flight.”

Why, I almost ask him, but there’s something in his voice that stops me from asking. Even when I was a child, it wasn’t a question he ever liked to answer. Ask your mom, he’d tell me over and over.

“I guess we’d better get this over with,” he says, as if he’s suddenly exhausted. “Would you get me another one of these while I get us back on track?” He hands me his glass, the smell of tomato and vodka drifts between us and I can’t tell if it’s coming only from the cup or if he’s getting closer to that moment where the smell of his body is more vodka and tomato than his normal smell of cigarettes and western aftershave.

In the kitchen, I rinse out the red residue from the bottom of the glass. He hides the vodka in the cabinet next to the sink. He told me once that a man shouldn’t be ashamed of the things in his home, but he didn’t need to invite gossip either, so the vodka stayed hidden and guests were offered Pepsi. The bottle is large, with a round bottom and a long neck. There isn’t much in there, maybe enough for two or three drinks so I pour about half into the glass. I don’t have much experience in this, so I don’t know if it would be considered the normal amount or not, but I’ll have to warn him that’s he’s almost out. I grab the tomato juice from the ancient and yellowing fridge. It’s so old that the seal in the door doesn’t work all that well and the door opens easier than a swinging gate. As I pour the juice, I try to imagine again what it tastes like and why it’s so appealing to my grandfather. How could he stand to drink one or six every night? My mother had outlawed alcohol in our home except for the rare bottle of wine around the holidays. It’s not something my father or her ever talked about with us, but I’d never seen either of them drunk. It wasn’t how they dealt with the minor dramas of their lives. My mother, especially, attacked everything head on and she relied on her ability to be ever present if a problem should arise. Alcohol would have diminished her ability to concentrate on the solution, a solution she might suffer over for weeks.

“Ty, why don’t you make yourself one too,” my Grandfather shouted.

I walked into the next room carrying the glass, my legs already stiffening up from standing long enough to make the drink. I wish I could tell him about the pain, how I know that it might be coming back.

“You sure?” I ask, handing him the cup. “I don’t want anyone to get in trouble.”

“Go, go.” He shoos me away with his free hand. “We won’t tell your mother. Besides what good is flying first class if you can’t enjoy the free drinks?” He smiles over the brim of his glass, takes a long drink, and motions for me to hurry up.

Though it feels like I’m dragging my left leg, I hurry into the kitchen. I open the cabinet with the cups and I hesitate. At home, we only use plastic cups, but that seems so childish when I’m going to have my first drink, so I grab a glass like my grandfather’s and I go to work making another drink.

My mother didn’t like these visits. Not because of my grandfather’s language or references about the seedier things he had done in his life, though these things were usually included in her arguments with my father; arguments that I wasn’t supposed to hear, but inevitably heard, because my mother’s vehemence didn’t allow her to whisper. No her real problem with the way that I spent my Saturday nights was that she thought that I was wasting my time. Time that had become even more precious as I got older and the chances of remission twindled. She’d casually mention dances or movies, things I could do with my friends. Normal things, she never said, but her eyes often pleaded in those few minutes we spent passing each other in the darkened hallway outside of my bedroom before I went off to bed. My friend options had narrowed through the years as my cancer became normal, boring, and a thing they could avoid without much guilt. It was no longer cool to hang out with the kid with cancer. And I too had realized that it was no longer worth trying to fit in. I never would. So I helped my grandfather fly his simulation missions and waited. This, I wanted to tell my mother, is when I owned time.

When I sit back down I notice two things: the first is that my grandfather’s drink is about gone already and that there is something wrong with the plane. The plane takes a wide arc and the engine starts to whine with the increase in speed. We’re traveling at 500 miles per hour and the pixelated clouds look like marching marshmallows as they glide over the windshield. A bell dings warning us that we’ve drifted well off of our original course. Another warning sounds goes off, reminding us that we may run out of gas or stall at these speeds. My grandfather hits the spacebar twice and the alarms are silenced leaving only the synthetic sound of rushing wind outside the simulated cockpit. We’ve never went off course before, nor have we ever cranked the plane up to these speeds. The game, with its weak graphics and lousy processor hitches and threatens to crash.

“Are you trying to give your fake self a heart-attack?”

“I wish it were that easy, Ty.” He shakes his head and holds up his glass. “Let’s drink, son.”

He gestures at my glass and I hold mine up like his as if we’re about to toast.

“Normally, for a first drink I’d tell you to take it slow, but tonight’s a little different and we don’t have the time for all of that namby-pamby stuff. We’ll drink together, alright? Don’t stop until I do. Can you do that for me, Ty?”

The tone of his voice–sad, angry, a bit hostile–makes me look him in the eye and I can see why my dad is so scared of him, but also why he loves him so much. I’m surprised that he’s not crying, but finally I nod and put the glass up to my lips. The smell of tomato is strong and the glass is cold against my lips. We tip our glasses and at first it tastes only like soup, but then as the liquid slides down my throat I think of eating hot food, campfires, and the time I had bronchitis. I tip the glass until it feels as though I’m drowning. I catch, from the corner of my eye, my grandfather lowering his glass and finally I take the cup away and suck in air.

“Jesus, How do you drink that stuff?” I wipe my mouth the back of my hand.

“It’s an acquired taste,” he says, laughing. I laugh too and I think of that scene in Beauty and the Beast where Gaston sings about his triumphs. I don’t mention this thought, because it’s another reminder of just how young I must seem to him.

“Grandpa, why are we doing all of this?” I wave my hands and arms around as if I’m a conductor who is fed up with his orchestra, indicating God knows what, because my head feels as though it’s trying to float away from my neck. The edges of my vision have gone a bit sparkly as the liquid settles in my stomach.

“Just watch the screen. A few more minutes and we’ll have our answer.”

“Answer? What? What are we doing?”

Tap, tap at the keys and my grandfather drops the plane several thousand feet. The camera tilts and I know that we’re nosing down toward the ground. The Earth comes into focus and I’m amazed again at how it looks like a patchwork quilt with it’s tidy squares of farmland and suburbs.

“Ty, We don’t have much time.”

“Time for what? This is getting a bit creepy Grandpa. Even for you.” Nervous, I take another sip of the drink.

“I wanted to see what it felt like. You know, to make those calls.”

“What calls? Look, the plane is going to crash,” I said, pointing at the screen. I killed thousands of soldiers in my own games, but I didn’t want this plane to crash.

I reached for the keyboard and he smacked my hand. It didn’t hurt at first, just stung like I was a child, the one I’d been trying to hide all night.

“What the hell was that for?” I sat back in my chair, a little afraid of where this was all going.

“You remember the movie we watched a couple of weeks ago? The one about Flight 73?”

“9/11? That was over ten years ago. What does that have to do with anything?”

“What doesn’t it have to do with? I’ve got some news. Bad news, actually. And I wanted to tell you when we were watching that movie, but I saw you crying…” I start to protest, and he waves me down. “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, but I thought we had heard enough about death that night, so I’ve been trying to figure how to tell you ever since.”

The bells and alarms are back, forcing their way out of the speakers. I glance at the screen and the plane looks as though it’s been flung like an arrow toward the earth. A field comes closer, the individual details coming into focus. The field is surrounded by several small groups of trees, their branches fanned out like a huddle of school children waiting for the bus in winter.

“We’ve got to pretend here like I’m on that flight. I know I’m headed for a crash that you don’t walk away from. They’ve got these phones on the plane, you see, that can call anywhere in the world from the air. I’m up there with those other people, and I’m crying, and praying and cussing and I’m only thinking about you, Ty. You’ve been dealt a shitty hand. Christ. At your age, but I call you, son, because I know that you’ll understand. You might not remember it, but you’ve stared down that coward Death before and I need your strength, because he’s coming for me now. My plane is going down and I thought I was ready, but I’m not so sure now. So I thought I’d see what it was like to die. And I’ve been thinking about it for weeks, and this is the only thing I could think of and I’m sorry you have to come along, but I need a co-pilot for this last flight.”

He looks at me and the anger is gone, replaced by the same emotion I often find in my own eyes when I look in the mirror: fear.

I pull my chair closer and I take his hand. If I ignore the calluses and the gnarled knuckles, the skin is clammy and weightless, his grip loose, as if he’s waiting me for me to lead the way. We brace ourselves for the impact, holding onto each other, knowing full well that neither can really save the other, but in this simulated moment of panic, we take solace in knowing that somebody else is there. It won’t protect our bodies, as the plane hurtles toward the Earth, but for these last seconds, we free-fall into the place where our bodies, finally, cannot harm us.

No one died that day, at least not anybody real. We never flew again. We had, finally, one less mystery. Death, we agreed, could wait.

 

 

BIO

Tommy DeanTommy Dean is the author of a flash fiction chapbook entitled Special Like the People on TV from Redbird Chapbooks. A graduate of the Queens University of Charlotte MFA program, he has been previously published in the Watershed Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, r.kv.r.y, Boston Literary Magazine, Foliate Oak, and Gravel. Find him @TommyDeanWriter on Twitter.

 

 

 

Jackie Bridges

J is for Jammy

by Jacqueline Bridges

 

 

To My Beautiful Wife, my lover,

This is not a suicide letter.

I am not planning to kill myself, you, or my neighbor (my contempt for Mr. Sherry’s lavish spending is of no consequence in this matter).

The opportunity to read this letter should arise after my untimely death, but should not coincide with my funeral. This should be addressed afterward.

I know how these things go.

Modest, black garb and white, gaunt faces will crowd around at my wake, and the occasional muffled sob will echo in the foyer at my service. I am not worried about that day, for it will take care of itself. This is about what will soon follow.

As a keen observer, I can predict what will come next: day-to-day life, which can be summed up by a famous cliché, “time heals all wounds.” Eventually, you will move on. At first, you will feel my breath on the back of your neck. The guilt will hover around your shoulders, like my corrective criticism that enabled you to recognize your faults during our arguments. In this case, please turn to another famous cliché, “this too shall pass.” I have other plans for you. Before long, you will return to our favorite independent theater and join the discussions on the use of light to portray cinematic themes.

Those were some of our best times, I think.

I encourage you to remain seated in the theater until all of the credits have scrolled off the screen. It will be difficult to sit alone, without me at your side, but it is the right thing to do. On this we both agree.

It will be like it was before, enjoying a glass of red wine by the fireside of the Bistro that shares a wall with our little theater. I can imagine the long, clear stem snuggling between your fingers as the balloon glass rests upon your delicate palm. Do not let the wait staff intimidate you. If needed, use my tasting notes as a reference guide, and remember two simple rules when ordering: One, always order red wine, and two, if you must order a white, the drier the better. Now I will present my first gift to you, Jammy.

I hope you cherish both syllables. Jam∙my.

I thought you might like to use it when describing your wine. The adjective should not die with me. The word will earn you respect in many circles, albeit, not with your mother or sister, but definitely amongst a more educated crowd. Word of caution—use it sparingly, that’s my trick. I hope you picked up on my foreshadowing when granting you your first gift. Of course you did. Your persistence to increase your observation skills has paid off. You have always been an astute pupil. Yes, there are two other gifts I will be adding to the collection. I was known for my generous spirit in life, and it is something that should be remembered in my passing as well. I would like to bequeath my anthology of first editions to you.

Many of our relatives will insist on owning one, claiming they want a piece of me. Do not listen to them. They are merely scavengers. Only you will honor my love of literature. Anyone else will sell them to the highest bidder at the first sign of financial crisis, but you would never consider it. I trust you will hold them dear to your heart, as they were to mine.

And for my final act, I have some advice you will want to heed. It is obvious that you rely on me for certain things in our marriage. I have no qualms with that. Each person should put their energy to the tasks they perform best. Numbers have always been my strength, but it is something you can develop.

Some people think they are better than others, that finance is an art few individuals have the eye for.

I disagree.

It can be taught, and it can be learned. On my bedside table, you will find the three most influential money management books of the current year. Feel free to read them. I recommend a highlighter and small notebook when scouring the pages. As for my gift, I am leaving you with a sizable nest egg. However, it is important you do not squander it. Grief can be a terrible thing that clouds our judgment. Remember Ms. Pendleton? I should hate to think that some salesman will try to take advantage of a lonely widow like you.

For your protection, I have locked your nest egg into a three-step ladder, high-yield CD. You will learn all about CDs in your new evening reading. I have arranged a small allotment to see to the funeral expenses, but our accountant will release the first of three CDs, 12 months after my passing. This will keep you from splurging on frivolous trips or fancy cars to fill the initial void, but once the year has passed, I will relinquish control because you will be ready to create your own portfolio. I know you can do it.

That is all I have to offer at this time. I wish I had more to give; more time and more love. If we are privileged to marry in our next life, I will choose you. My wish is to make you happy, or at the very least comfortable. If you happen to find true love again, falling twice in this lifetime, I will not keep you from it. In fact, I will be happy for you, but if that is the case, please pay a visit to Harold Andrews. I had him draft a pre-nuptial agreement.

Sincerely,

Your Husband, your lover

 

My thoughts are interrupted, “Lover?” It’s my wife’s voice.

I cover my paper as best I can, trying to exude indifference. It would have worked, had my hands not flailed in the air before coming to rest squarely on the letter.

“Who’s that for?” Her voice raises in anticipation, and I can tell she believes it to be a love letter, for her. She’s about to be disappointed.

“It’s nothing.” My voice cracks.

“Nonsense!” Carly pushes my hand away and reaches for the letter. “Let me read it.”

There’s nothing I can do, but wait, with outstretched arms, ready to dry her tears. At first, Carly smiles. I know my terms of endearment must be the cause. Right after, her smile falls flat. She must be past the first paragraph by now—she’s a speed reader of sorts. I expected this. She’s quiet for the length of the letter. Not a frown, no smiles, no scrunched brow. Finally, she lowers the letter and tilts her head sideways, the same way our lab does when we’re talking to him.

“Who’s this for,” she demands.

I’m quick to jump in, “You, of course.”

“You don’t call me lover.”

“I might,” I defend. When I see that she doesn’t buy it, I shrug, “I might start.”

She returns her attention to the letter, ignoring my last comment. I can see that she’s in shock, so I offer my condolences, “There’s a chance I’ll pass away before you.”

Carly’s smile returns, this one a bit wicked, “A good chance.”

I push past her joke, then ask, “So, what do you think?”

Now her eyebrows scrunch, “It’s cute.”

I jump up, “It’s cute?!” My voice is strained, “It’s my last wishes—you can’t call it cute.”

She purses her lips, and I know she’s holding back.

“What? Is there something on my list you can’t honor?” I place my hand on my heart, “I need to know if you can do the things I ask?”

“Seriously?” she’s practically laughing.

“Seriously!”

“Okay, then.” She traces the lines of my letter, then stops, “First of all, I don’t like that artsy theater. It smells like mold. I go there for you—so I won’t be going there once you’re dead.”

I hold a hand up, “Please, once I pass away.

“What do you care what I call it if you’re dead.”

I wince.

“Fine,” she rolls her eyes. “Once you pass away, I’ll be seeing movies at the new theater in that strip mall of 6th avenue, you know, the one with the reclining seats.”

“Fine.” I look for a pen so I can strike the theater reference in my letter. “Anything else? It’s best to clarify it now.”

“Yeah,” she jumps right in, “I’m not using that word.” She’s pointing at my Jammy reference.

“What?”

“I’m not using it. It sounds ridiculous.” She pauses, “Even when you say it.”

I place my hand on my heart once more, “It’s very descriptive, in a classic way.”

“And what’s this about your first editions?” She turns, holding the paper out for me to see. She’s like a cat, swift, sneaky, and in full attack mode before I’ve even registered her last move. “Do you mean your comic books?” she asks, a furtive brow in place.

“They’re first editions!” I defend.

She purses her lips again, “So it’s safe to say you took a few liberties with this, aye?”

“Aye?” I taunt, “It depends on your circle. For the record, I don’t include Cananda in my circle, nor your sister.”

Mentioning her sister triggers the let’s not go to bed angry glare, but she moves past it sooner than I expect. “Okay.” She says. Her tone is even, lacking the placating tone I’ve come to listen for, “I can go with that—among your friends,” she clears her throat, “and perhaps many other Americans, your collection may be an asset.”

It bothers me that she placed quotations around my collection, but I’ve escaped an argument at this point, so I just nod.

“But in what circle is 5000 dollars a sizable nest egg? American or not.”

I snatch the letter from her hands, “Obviously I’m not going to die for a long time.” I fold the paper up and slip it into an envelope, “Just wait, that nest egg is going to be huge. It’s called compounding interest, but of course you don’t know about that yet.” I lick the envelope and seal it. “I can see you’re not ready for this just yet. I’ll find nice spot for it, someplace safe. Don’t worry,” I add, “When you’re truly ready, you’ll find it.”

She smiles, “I’ll never be ready for Jammy.”

 

 

BIO

Jackie BridgesJacqueline Bridges works as a guidance counselor to junior high students, where she puts her Masters degree to work, and then some. She is new to flash fiction and reads it daily (even in the counseling office). Her students join her weekly for a writing club, where they impress her with stories about fairies, dragons, and golden retrievers. She has three publications to-date, with 365 Tomorrows, Touch Poetry, The Fable Online, and Short Fiction Break. She’s currently working on a young adult, science fiction novel, mostly void of fairies, dragons, and golden retrievers.

 

 

 

Space Ex

by Sara Regezi

 

 

Dear Mr. Musk and the Mars Colony Selection Committee:

My name is Trudy McCormick, and I am ready to be a Martian. I eagerly read your announcement regarding your proposed colonization of Mars and now, just moments later, I have retrieved this stationery and am writing to you forthwith of my qualifications for Martian space travel.

I know you will seek a broad swath of sturdy Earthlings for the journey and I’d like to count myself among those brave souls. I have worked as a homemaker, and formerly as a Girl Scout leader in these United States, for more than 20 years. I know you will have plenty of engineers and scientists among your chosen crew, but can any of them create a satisfying casserole from last night’s picked-over meatloaf?

My husband Frank will attest to my creativity in the kitchen, as referenced above, as well as my overall innovative mind. He will, in fact, tell you that I should be put in a padded room for some of my ideas, but I ask you, Mr. Musk, as a true futurist, isn’t that the attitude that innovators have so often faced?

I just re-read the above paragraph: let me be clear, this letter is in support of my Martian mission, not my husband’s. Yes, he is somewhat handy on Earth, but he would only muck up the works on the Red Planet. Frank does not dream like you or I, Mr. Musk. His two feet are firmly planted in the U S of A. When they’re not elevated in the La-Z-Boy, that is. Frank took early retirement at our local GM parts factory two years ago and he is, frankly (pardon the pun, his name is Frank), driving me nuts. I believe that my becoming a Martian colonist would help our relationship, in that he might actually learn some survival skills on this third planet from the Sun, while I’m busy colonizing the fourth.

Anyway, in addition to creativity, your chosen few will also need the ability to withstand incredible hardship during the difficult journey just to get to Mars. When I think back on our 1989 trip from Grand Rapids, Michigan, where we live, to Ft. Lauderdale in a mini-van (this is me, Frank, and FOUR children), I believe that a nine-month trip in a spaceship with actual grown-ups would be a relative picnic. Now, as then, I can easily entertain a pod-full of people with song and story, while also breaking up arguments that arise—though this time I promise not to reach back and pull anyone’s hair!

And once we land on Mars, the hardship will have only begun, I realize. As I read on your website, Mars is currently not a terribly hospitable place, but I believe I can help make it welcoming to humans. You see, having raised four children from scratch, I understand the challenge of sustaining life, at least on Earth. The job is never finished.

In fact, our oldest, April, now 33, has just moved back in with Frank and me, along with her three kids, Lonnie, Lori and Lynn, 12, 8, and 5 respectively. April has “checked out” and prefers to spend her evenings at the Red Lamp Tavern rather than with her children, so I am in the unique position lately of entertaining three of my nine grandchildren on a nightly basis. Lonnie’s homework he proclaims “total B.S.” and stomps off to play with his phone most evenings. Lori, the eight-year-old, is disturbingly enamored of rap music, reciting the most foul lyrics you can imagine at the top of her lungs. Poor Lynn has taken to carrying around one of my pink slippers in her arms, calling it her “lost little lamb.” Meanwhile, Frank just turns up the volume on ESPN.

But I digress. In summary, Mr. Musk and honorable Selection Committee, I believe I have the qualifications for life on Mars, given my ample Life Experience on Earth. In fact, I believe my talents are desperately in need of a new interplanetary outlet, rather than being wasted within the ever-shrinking confines of our house here on East Hazel Street.

One question I have for you: what is the time frame for your mission? Please note: I am ready as soon as the ship is space-worthy. I eagerly await your orders.

Sincerely,

Trudy McCormick,
Grand Rapids, MI
(Future Proud Martian)

 

 

BIO

Sara RegeziSara Regezi is a former copywriter, former comic, former musician, and current nurse practitioner in Silver Spring, Maryland. She wants to marry Jess Walter except that she’s already married (and so is he, probably). Her previous work has appeared on girlcomic.net and live onstage with Monalog Cabin. She is thrilled to be published in Writing Disorder.

 

Charles Lowe

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei

by Charles Lowe

 

I am a graduate student in my mid thirties living in the U.S. with a dining common worker from a district shaped like a dumpling in the north of China and have, for some time, been worried – even before she told me her ex wanted an interview with me before the two of us could get married, an announcement greatly troubling as I was unaware that I was both a candidate for marriage and a candidate to marry a woman who was still seeking advice from her ex.

“You afraid to meet?” Mrs. Wei Wei asked.

“Of course not, I’m busy correcting the first batch of papers,” I said, “on the most significant event in a student’s life.”

“Don’t worry,” Mrs. Wei Wei smiled.

“I’m not,” I smiled. “I know who Mrs. Wei Wei is,” which was true. Mrs. Wei Wei was the pen name my possibly soon-to-be wife took when she wrote an advice column for The Tianjin Daily. Her readers also called her the Good or Wise Auntie or the Queen of Dumplings on account of the culinary references spicing up her column.

The first I saw of the Good or Wise Auntie of Tianjin was inside an album Mrs. Wei Wei showed me on our second date. The album was moldy from having been stored beneath a bed she and her sister had shared. It had a bent corner either from its journey from the Machang District to graduate housing in UMASS or from a smaller yet less well insulated travel cross town from campus housing to a sublet, which she shared with a Born Again couple until she moved in with me.

Each plastic envelope held a photo. The first showed Mrs. Wei Wei with her mother next to a Ferris wheel near the Hai River. Mrs. Wei Wei’s mother had broad shoulders and a face touched by sunlight mixed with gravelly soot. An inky swirl overlapped the thin eyelids of the Good or Wise Auntie enough so that I didn’t recognize the Queen of Dumplings until I spotted a smile surfacing on the edges of her lips. The second flap was empty. The third showed Mrs. Wei Wei in a gray factory uniform. A line looking like a thread was stuck to the edge of one sleeve. Mrs. Wei Wei’s roommate at college was in a fourth posing in front of a mirror, but flipping through the other pages I did not find evidence of the man I was to replace, assuming Mrs. Wei Wei’s choice met with the first Mr. Wei Wei’s approval.

Of course, my possible future wife had not always been Mrs. Wei Wei. Her preparation for the role started one Friday evening when at age six she was entrusted with pinching together the ends of the rice dumpling wrappers: a task which afforded her the chance to listen in on the advice ladled out in equal portions to her relatives in Tianjin, Shenzhen, as well as a few in a beach suburb of LA. While slicing the pork and scallions as well as preparing the vinegar and soy sauce, her Auntie espoused on the medical efficacy of ginger to heal a romantic wound. Her mother, sister, and uncle took turns molding the dough from scratch while each furnished a point on the significance of good planning: the principle applied in equal measure to the use of yeast in helping the rice dough rise and to the employment of favors, guanxi, to facilitate a deal with a municipal government official.

But while her mom, sis, and uncle as well as auntie all had a significant impact on her columns, her elder cousin was the most profound influence. The cousin had risen to be the Assistant Loan Office at HSBC, a noted criminal enterprise in the district, and had acquired over a steady climb a well-measured understanding over how to prepare advice that could burn off a tongue. Her favorite piece was THE TALLEST BLADE OF GRASS HAS ONLY ONE DESTINY. The cousin made a slicing motion down her right breast so as to complete the thought before adding extra ginger for mom’s but not uncle’s dipping sauce.

Mrs. Wei Wei recalled the heaps of ginger that scorched her cousin’s sauce when she was biking in late March during the windstorm season when a curtain of soot and dust descended onto Tianjin. Mrs. Wei Wei was a cub reporter and was weaving out of traffic: one hand on the loose handlebar of her used Schwinn. The other hand she used to push aside a curtain blanketing her eyelids when a truck, carrying used tires, hit a motorized cycle to Mrs. Wei Wei’s right, crushing one spoke but leaving the cyclist undamaged. Mrs. Wei Wei considered then asking the chief editor for a post that did not involve chasing down factory managers on a used Schwinn with loosely attached handlebars throughout the Nankai and Machang Districts.  But she remembered the destiny of a tall grass blade and pedaled through a few more storms none so severe as the first. After swerving one time around an accident committed by a cute Lada, Mrs. Wei Wei returned to a washroom where as the sole woman on staff, she felt entitled to a bit of privacy.

The news she heard, while dislodging the mix of soot, dust, and gravel from her right pant leg, was not especially memorable.  The present Mrs. Wei Wei was toasting the chief editor for his generosity in agreeing to let the advice columnist transfer to the business page. The six preceding Mrs. Wei Wei’s had all managed in the course of six months to transition out of the Health & Science page to departments as varied as travel and hygiene. None of these gentlemen wanted to remain a good or wise auntie, apportioning out common or uncommon sense to the teenage and twenty something women who composed Mrs. Wei Wei’s primary audience. “But I am thinking,” Mrs. Wei Wei added in a voice soft enough not to wake her Born Again housemates, “maybe my elder cousin is wrong. I know that sounds ridiculous. A Junior Loan Officer from HSBC wrong, but anyway to be the taller blade may be worth the chance. I am taller than the average girl in the Machang and Nankai Districts and am tired of pedaling through a thick mix of soot and gravel.

“Without much preparation, I rush out the washroom to offer the services of a family of Mrs. Wei Wei’s. The Chief Editor pretends not to see the toilet paper, which I later find clings to my black corduroys, and declares ‘you can be Mrs. Wei Wei for now.’

“Okay, the edges of my dry lips tighten. I am still a reporter. So I still have to drive through a mix of soot and gravel to discover a factory that through its workers’ collective efforts has overtaken a counterpart in Liverpool, England. I clutch onto the handlebars that have loosened again on Race Course Avenue and arrive at mommy’s where I take over the mixing duties while Miss HSBC (my cus’ nickname) offers help on how to inflate travel receipts, the critical attribute of a junior loan officer, so I cannot be Mrs. Wei Wei until 10 when I return to our apartment. The husband isn’t back from the library—and can start the advice. The girl wants a hukou.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“A residence permit, they’re impossible for a country girl from Henan to get unless she bonds with a fellow with legal status. So that’s what I tell her. Find a legal boy. Better if he’s a blade of grass that’s slightly confused. Fix yourself on him. Don’t let go. After signing off for the first time as Mrs. Wei Wei, I feel reasonably satisfied resting on my first husband’s leathery skin, his breathing as if through blades of evenly sliced grass, when I see I may be Mrs. Wei Wei only for a short time. What I will be after? A letter arrives. The note is on a slender sheaf of rice paper.”

Mrs. Wei Wei showed me the rice paper, which was slight enough to crumple up in my palms.

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei, for the past 6 ms, my husband reads to me the dream of the red mansions until I want to get big just to close his thick lower lip. Still my belly is a wide-open valley. We’re living with his Mom who complains she’s had to give up her bed, no reason. Mom tests the mattress. The blanket does have firm corners. Still I haven’t blown up. Am joyless. Mom claims I’m defective and wants to return me to my real mom, but my real mom claims it’s the dumplings my husband’s elder sis’s fed me and has taken to bringing over stinky tofu until my nose blocks up. I’m dead. Mom wants best bed back. What should do?

                                                Lost and Possibly Less a Bed

Mrs. Wei Wei was beaming at me, the ink from the rice paper bleeding into her fingers. “I’m confused,” I said.

“Simple,” Mrs. Wei Wei kept beaming. “The girl is living with her husband’s parents. They’ve given her their bed and hope she can produce a grandson for them as soon as possible.”

“And,” I added, “despite heavy doses of classical literature and traditional cuisine, Ms. Lost and Possibly Less a Bed hasn’t become pregnant, and her in-laws are blaming her.”

“Exactly,” Mrs. Wei Wei tightened the corners of her lips.

“What solution did the Queen of Dumplings serve up?” I smiled.

“Break the skin,” she said, completing her advice with the same slicing motion as her elder cousin had perfected.

“Really,” I took the letter from Mrs. Wei Wei’s hand.

“She’s not been…you know, penetrated.”

“That can happen?”

“Sure. Chinese boys are idiots. We’re all been married to one. The mom is the true problem. She’s going to require physical evidence.”

Mrs. Wei Wei took the letter from my hand.

Dear Lost and Possibly Less a Bed,

            Do not worry. Your problem calls for a simple recipe. Be sure to have the right grip. Put too much inside the wrapper. The dumpling falls apart. Too little mix. It looks like a dead roach. Here’s what you do. Find the fold of skin. If you need help, ask a local auntie. Gently nudge the fold of skin with the tip of a broom handle. If there’s blood, you know the answer. Here’s the answer. Kindly keep a sample hidden in a folded corner of the sheet on your side. Shut the lights off. Second rule. Men want to believe they are in control. Keep the lights off. Mrs. Wei Wei has learnt that destiny through her many experiences, preparing dumplings and salted river fish. After your Mr. Wei Wei starts on top of you, grip his shoulders like you’re holding onto the blade of a butcher’s knife. Guide him over you. Let him believe he is in control, that you are following him, not the other way around. Never scream. He’ll hear his own screams anyhow. When your Mr. Wei Wei is asleep, pour a few droplets of blood near the bottom corner of the bed. Left or right, doesn’t matter? If your mom’s got a maid, let that small potato remove the sheet. If she doesn’t, you do. Make sure to leave the sheet out. Your mom will see the answer. She’ll let you rest comfortably on the best bed. She may fold the top sheet. Soon you’ll be throwing up in a squat down like any other woman. You will be happy.

                                                Yours Mrs. Wei Wei

Mrs. Wei Wei took out a photo. The baby appeared to be a blurry dumpling except the eyes, which were directed at my stomach. “Lost and Possibly Less a Bed has a beautiful baby,” I said.

“That’s Sunny Smile’s,” Mrs. Wei Wei said. “I get about one snap a week. It seems like every countryside girl with a proper hukou in the Machang and Nankai Districts is applying the end of a broom handle.”

“You’re sure that happened?” I asked.

“Truly,” Mrs. Wei Wei beamed. “When these countryside girls arrive in Tianjin, no aunties or moms are around to give them advice. They only have Mrs. Wei Wei. Some of them can’t read, but there’s always a crowd in front of the bulletin board. I use to watch them huddled up, reading me in the park. I really love it and would’ve stayed Mrs. Wei Wei if my husband hadn’t caught me with the Assistant Editor. That doesn’t end it, but it does start the end.”

“Mrs. Wei Wei had an affair,” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” Mrs. Wei Wei shook her head. “My first husband believes I have an affair, and I do let the frog-eyed assistant call me to his office every 3 on Friday afternoon.. His nickname is Frog Eyes, but I’m not a Junior Loan Officer at HSBC! I’m the good or wise auntie and patiently listen to Frog Eyes complain about his wife. She’s from Szechuan and very small in size, so understandably, the short girl floods the skin of a river fish with bits of hot peppercorns while everybody knows you use a little salt, which you can hide with snowflake beer. ‘True enough,’ Frog Eyes says with a high squeak, ‘you want some real Tianjinese fish flavored with a mild dash of ginger.’

“His office lacks an open window, so I go along: what else can a Queen of Dumplings do? He doesn’t order fish. We have fried dumplings: the edges burnt. With green tea, lots of the brown leaves getting caught between my teeth, so I tell him quick. I say, my husband is waiting for me (he’s not). Frog Eyes says he understands and starts following me to my apartment even if our fifth floor faces a post office that is on three concrete columns that are chipped like the wok my mom gave to me as a wedding present.

“Frog Eyes tears up, explaining how his short wife once adds salt instead of spicy peppercorn but way over so even the delightful taste of snowflake can’t hide the grains. I rush up the stairs, two at a time, in the shoes Miss HSBC lends me. They’re one size too small, my feet shaking so that though the guy reaches below my flat chest, he strides ahead of me, slowing down enough to relay the time his mother-in-law visits. His short wife truly burns off the old bitch’s tongue with some vinegar wine when we reach the door of my apartment, which I open a little: figuring to keep Frog Eyes out and me in when Frog Eyes falls against the door, his right shoulder scuffing up the thin wood I have scrubbed that morning—and am surprised then to see my first husband turn partway from a bookcase we keep standing with two slender metal poles.

“My first lets his black-framed glasses slope down the bridge of his nose. He has thin wrinkles which deepen along his brow. His eyes are sunk into his skull, his eyebrows look about to vanish.

“I try explaining the exact circumstances starting with the wrestling match with my immediate superior but stop at the point when my feet shake against the wooden stair. No one’s listening. Frog Eyes I guess decides spicy peppercorns aren’t a bad way to scorch a tongue. My first has also fled towards his mother’s villa on Race Course Avenue, though unlike Frog Eye’s wife, the fish his Red Mom serves is heavily salted.

“In any case, I was thinking his Red Mom must be slicing me up like I was a piece of ginger. His Red Mom, coming from a pure Red family and treats me like I am from the black class: which I am, my great-grandfather growing a li of rice in Suzhou, though that fellow loses the small plot in a mahjong game. Anyways, our family owns property three generations back. Hers doesn’t, so whenever Red Mom speaks to her Black Class Daughter, Red Mom makes the mix like an interview, the questions stiff enough so a black class daughter can dust them in midair.

“I make the half hour travel in five, weaving through a wave of bikes, but my first is already behind Red Mom’s custom made door. It has two iron sheets and a turtle cut into its bronze skin. I try shouting the name of her red son into the turtle’s downturned mouth, Shen! No answer. I say, Red Mom, please forgive. This time I look at the door handle which is shaped like a dislocated thumb. Still no answer, and put my fist through the part of the door just below the turtle’s shell until my fist bleeds into the part between the dislocated thumb and the turtle’s downward smile. No answer again. I try all over, figuring I only have to press some more like I’m peddling down Race Course Avenue: one hand gripping the handlebar, the other pushing through a mix of soot and gravelly dust. No answer, I put my head down on the walkway leading to my Red Mom’s four-floor house. The cobblestones feel cold and smooth—when my black class mom digs her fingernails into her younger daughter’s shoulder.   After, drags that daughter back to the daughter and her husband’s fifth-floor apartment next to the three-legged post office. The first Mr. Wei Wei doesn’t return for another week.”

Dear Mrs. Wei Wei,

I received a note once. The note was signed G.B., the initials of my about-to-become ex. The envelope lacked sufficient postage but was meticulously packed with the collection of letters I posted to G.B. over the five years we were together.

“It’s over,” my now ex-girlfriend put down, the ‘o’ and ‘e’ curved in a precise manner, though the ‘t’ had a ridge squiggling onto the blue lines of the perfumed paper.

I am still hurt even though I’m about to be marry another, assuming I can gain her ex’s approval. But I was starting graduate school, and, as you know, when you’re beginning a new phase, it’s natural to put off painful questions such as why did G.B. affix insufficient postage to an envelope containing all my love letters? Was it a standard passive aggressive maneuver? Or was she careless?

“Are you curious?” a co-worker asked at the beginning of an overnight shift at a group home serving catatonic adults including the staff.

“I have a friend from my home. She’s tall like you,” she added, “and reads books—like you. She’s a writer: only she’s been paid. Are you interested?”

The co-worker looked at me.

I didn’t answer and showed up on time at Bonducci’s, a café facing the Amherst Commons. The first thing I noticed. Your face was tilted at an awkward angle. Your hair was dotted with gray sparks. Please don’t take this wrong, but I didn’t find you attractive. I found you pleasant enough. You had a nice smile, the corners of your lips tightening ever so much, but you didn’t say much. I thought your English wasn’t very good and wondered what we’d have to talk about if we ever were alone.

I went back to work an overnight shift at the group home. I hadn’t been on a date for seven years and was bored and overlooked my fears. I called you. “Do I want jiaozi, fried dumplings?” You asked.

“I’m a vegetarian,” I said.  

“Some Taoist monks in my district have the same problem.”

“You have an understanding nature,” I said and showed up on your doorstep with a bottle of juicy juice.

The door was open. I walked in. You were stir-frying bits of pork in a chipped wok. I put down the orangey tangerine beverage and watched you prepare the pork and the tofu mixes while applying the bottom of your palm to flatten a hunk of rice flour dough. I picked up an Advocate and started skimming the classifieds for a used Schwinn. We were both quiet like we’d been married for some time and had run out of things to say. You put a bowl of dumplings in front of me and told me to go ahead, but we weren’t that married, and I waited for you to finish off the string bean and onion stir-fry before I tried to balance an underfed dumpling on a chopstick. The dumpling fell apart. You asked me if I wanted a spoon. I said I could do without but couldn’t.

You took the chopsticks from my hands, lifting the rice flour wrapper to my lips. My head was tilted forward. My mouth was open. I was hungry. You put the wrapper closer. I swallowed and felt the shreds of tofu catch the back of my throat. The shards of ginger burned my tongue. My eyes filled with tears, but after a while, I did grow used to balancing the mix of ginger and tofu on the tip of my tongue. I didn’t say another word, and when you got up, I followed you down a narrow hallway past the door of your bedroom. On the edge of your night table was a matted photo showing a couple. The man smiled, appearing to offer a hunk of ginger. You put the frame down before turning off the lights and digging your fingernails into my shoulder blade.  

You moved into my apartment a few weeks later and after several months more, I decided to stalk your ex. That seemed the reasonable course. He knew I was a candidate for marriage before I did, so I wanted to know more about him. Besides I was curious, and you did tell me he lived on the 12th floor of the library where the comp lit collection was stored. There was a line of cubicles, but none of them had any windows facing out onto the floor, so he could have been there. I didn’t know and went to the grad lounge where a few students were chatting across the front counter. None matched your description, so I had the time to write down some notes, but when it came to finishing the letter, I realized I didn’t have a penname. All your authors had names, summing up their circumstance in a painful yet amusing manner.

I waited for Mr. Wei Wei to assign me one.

* * *

Mr. Wei Wei did not return from the villa on Race Course until a week after Mrs. Wei Wei tried to put her fist through a custom made door and discovered her fist could bleed. After that, the good or wise auntie stopped coming to The Tianjin Daily. Frog Eyes might have felt a twinge of guilt and had the security guard carry over the sheaves of letters, which Mrs. Wei Wei used for a second tablecloth. Mr. Wei Wei became interested in one piece. It had a charcoal mark obscuring one corner and was from A Daughter Pining for Foreign Schooling. The Daughter had wanted to go to graduate school in the States, but her mom and dad had divorced, and the mom had wanted her only child close to home.

“He told the daughter to grab the opportunity?” I said.

Mrs. Wei Wei took out his note from behind a photo of her ex-roommate sitting in front of a mirror. The rice paper contained finely curved characters, which Mrs. Wei Wei put into enough words so that I could understand.

Dear Daughter Pining for Foreign Schools,

        Mrs. Wei Wei has learnt through hard experience the cost of disobeying your mom. Forget the offer letter.

                                                            Yours truly, M.W.W.

“A few months later he gets a fellowship in the States,” Mrs. Wei Wei added. “I don’t know he’s applied.”

“You could have stayed Mrs. Wei Wei?” I said, unfolding an edge of her blanket.

“I think about it for a few months. He goes over first. I know he doesn’t want me. He pens his notes on the back of postcards. Each note is briefer than the last. Finally, he puts one on the back a snapshot of a night table. The table is cheap like a black class girl I’m thinking, but Miss HSBC is advising me on how a wife can maintain a bookworm husband, so I’m thinking the cheap wood might provide a nice resting place for my album.

“I send a card: Am coming over.

Sure, he writes back, and when I arrive, he does try to make me feel comfortable, taking me to the Park where he gets me real ice cream from Herrell’s. I’m happy for a time, not Mrs. Wei Wei at all, but he goes back to being buried in the library. I start biking. It’s early March, and silly black class girl, I expect a storm to blow up the gravel from a partially paved road, but there is no storm, and I’m crossing the Connecticut River, the sky like a mirror whose glass has been shaven thin. When I get back, he’s stuck a note on the chipped wok. Put half our bank account, including the loose change on top of the album. I don’t put my fist through a bronze door. I’m in America and move out.”

I looked up. Mr. Wei Wei was holding the campus newspaper or at least someone with a remarkable resemblance to Mr. Wei Wei was holding a campus newspaper in front of a still life of a vegetable hanging from a wall of the graduate lounge. He had thin wrinkles creasing his brow. His eyes were sunk into his skull. His eyebrows looked like they were going to vanish. He’s on a cushioned stool next to another grad student who was leaning over a counter while flirting with the cashier.

He ate for five minutes. I kept track on my watch. Five minutes exactly. Then, he disposed of the plastic, downed the drink without burning his tongue. Walked out the front exit and turned towards the library. I might’ve been following the wrong ghost, but in case I was chasing the correct shadow, I decided to leave before he could spot me and took a longer route behind the Campus Center before riding an elevator to the comp lit section and sitting down at a desk on the opposite wall from a line of cubicles. I assumed if Mr. Wei Wei left the elevator Mr. Wei Wei would go straight to his cubicle, which, as I predicted, he did, taking a right perpendicular turn and walking towards a cubicle which by the scraping of his tennis shoelaces, sounded to be the second over; I edged to the next aisle when I heard his door lock. I stared at the slender grains of wood for the next nine hours.

At 11:40, the first bell at the library went off though its sound didn’t disturb Mrs. Wei Wei. He was trying to finish up his last bit of note taking inside his cubicle. At ten of, he emptied the contents of some Tupperware into a garbage pail outside. I left before him, so we’ll leave a mystery as to what he dined on that night, only please note, Mrs. Wei Wei, I forgot to be hungry that night and went to the elevator, figuring it was his turn to follow me. I waited then at the circulation desk behind a line of students waiting to check out their books.

Mr. Wei Wei came down empty handed. My guess was that he used his cubicle to store the unchecked out items, a practice in clear violation of library protocol. I didn’t turn him in. I would’ve had to explain my practice of standing guard over a thin sheet of wood guarding his cubicle for under ten hours to the Head Librarian who wore thick spectacles attached to a rubber band ensnaring the back of his skull. Still, having uncovered the possible violation of library rules and regulations, I felt comfortable trailing Mr. Wei Wei more closely when at last I grew too confident and was only a footstep away. Mr. Wei Wei turned on me then, though more likely he was looking through me at a red searchlight at the top of the library tower, which was flickering far brighter than the nearest street lamp.

Mr. Wei Wei crossed the visitor’s parking lot where a line of graduate housing subsisted behind a steel meshed fence. Mr. Wei Wei shut a chipped wooden door before closing a feathery curtain. I went home.

The interview with Mr. Wei Wei took place one week later.

I arrived fifteen minutes ahead of schedule, hoping to get the drop, but the first Mr. Wei Wei was already perched beneath a yellow and black remake of a Campbell’s Soda Can that, unlike the original, was laminated so the metal lines sloped into the yellow backdrop. Mr. Wei Wei pointed me out to some friends who were arrayed on cushioned bar stools, and who, it occurred to me, might also have been informed of my possible marriage before I was. “Do you want something?” Mr. Wei Wei asked.

Mr. Wei Wei waited.

“Cappuccino,” I added.

He took out a few bucks. “My treat,” he said.

“The next is mine,” I said returning my wallet to my side pocket while Mr. Wei Wei wiped a coffee stain from my lips, “How did you guy meet?”

“Through a friend of hers,” I answered. “The friend did overnights with me at a group home serving catatonic patients and staff.”

“Interesting,” Mr. Wei Wei smiled. His hair was cropped. “Do you mind if I’m direct?”

I didn’t answer. He continued, “Have you dated a Chinese girl before?”

“My other girlfriend was Chinese,” I said. “She was from Malaysia though, not China.”

Mr. Wei Wei sipped on his latte. “You like Chinese,” he said.

“She dumped me,” I answered.

Mr. Wei Wei shrugged his shoulders, “Mrs. Wei Wei is very strong.”

“She is,” I agreed. “I’ve felt her fingernails. That’s why you left?

“If that’s not too personal,” I added.

“You’re marrying my first,” Mr. Wei Wei smiled. “We’re almost old friends.”

He stirred the foam in his coffee mug, “It seemed the only way. We stopped talking to one another. I remember I had begun to sleep on the couch when one day, I realized we weren’t the right mix and took out our savings, placing it on our table: then, left her a note explaining to leave enough for the rent.”

“That was more than fair,” I said, wondering whether it was proper etiquette for a candidate to agree with his potential wife’s ex’s account of their breakup.

“Was there a reason?” I asked.

“For what?”

“Why you stopped talking.”

“We never were good at talking. It became more obvious once we got away from home,” he smiled. “How’s the good or wise auntie’s English?”

“Not perfect but good enough,” I smiled. “I understand her stories.”

“That’s a start.”

“How long have you been in graduate school?”

“Seven years,” I said. “She tells me you’ve finished the Ph.D. in less than two years and have a job lined up in the Midwest.”

“I’m moving there with my new wife.”

“Congratulations.”

He shrugged, “Looks like we both have good luck.”

Mr. Wei Wei waved for his friend at the counter to bring over dessert. The two of us spent the next half hour teasing apart a cheesecake until the slice was in crumbs. I looked up a few times, trying to imagine his slender eyebrows behind a thin curtain while Mrs. Wei Wei was resting her head on the stone steps leading to a four-story villa, her fingers bleeding and her palms very red and dry.

Mr. Wei Wei said he had to prepare for his defense in two weeks and got up, leaving before I could ask him for my new name. It didn’t matter. Mr. Wei Wei must have called in a positive report right away because while stir-frying the pork and scallions that evening, Mrs. Wei Wei started to hash out long distance the plans for our wedding with her elder sis, elder cousin and her mom.

I saw the first Mr. Wei Wei once more a few months later when Mrs. Wei Wei asked if we could visit Pulaski Park. She was serving dumplings with pork and bok choy (no scallions), and NoHo was a half hour away, so I was about to ask if we could postpone the journey when she turned off the stove and put away the flowered apron.

When we reached the Park, it was empty, which wasn’t a surprise on a weekday night. I asked Mrs. Wei Wei what she wanted. Mrs. Wei Wei wanted to wait. “In the cold,” I asked.

She shook her head. We waited. I was fidgeting despite my extensive experience as a stalker in front of windowless cubicles. I wanted to tell her I didn’t care. I knew she hadn’t gotten over her first marriage, but that didn’t matter. Mr. Wei Wei and I were almost old friends, and I would have believed what I said was true, but before I could say it, my predecessor slipped out the old Academy of Music with his new Mrs. Wei Wei, and I got up to greet her. Mrs. Wei Wei dug her fingernails into my shoulder blades.

I stay down.

 

 

BIO

Charles LoweCharles Lowe’s work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and has been published or is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Fiction International, Guernica, the Pacific Review, Hanging Loose, and elsewhere. His fiction has also been included in the recently published anthology, Friend. Follow. Text. #storiesFromLivingOnline. He lives with his wife and daughter in Zhuhai, China, He is the Programme Director of the Contemporary English Language and Literature programme and the Director of the Cross-Cultural Studies at United International College. He lives with his wife and daughter in Zhuhai, China.

 

 

 

 

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